A Useful Study of the Arguments for “Voter Fraud”: Credit the Election Assistance Commission

Posted: 8/30/07

      Tova Wang, writing in the Washington Post this morning, is entirely right that the Election Assistance Commission ought not to have suppressed, then changed, a report commissioned on voter fraud and intimidation, and it was wrong, too, to have put Wang herself under a gag (“confidentiality”) order.   "A Rigged Report on U.S. Voting?" Washington Post (Aug. 30, 2007) at A21.    [Note:  I was a member of the working group assembled to advise, briefly, on the study].  The agency did considerable harm to its reputation with this clumsy bit of institutional politics.  But look, as they say, on the bright side, for illumination.

     Until the EAC carried on foolishly in this episode, bowing to political pressures at work in the voter ID movement, it could be shown, but not as powerfully, that the “fraud” movement was motivated by political and not by careful empirical study.  Pamphleteers like John Fund, a skilled polemicist, could make his case with anecdotes, forced inferences and speculations.  Here at least was argument, and while it did not stand up well to scrutiny, it was argument all the same.  And in someone like Fund, proponents of controls on fraud could have as their ally an “independent” voice, reporting from the field but without any overt political affiliation to raise questions about motive.  The same might have been said, though less plausibly, about Thor Hearne and his organization, the American Center for Voting Rights, before it suddenly disappeared from view.  

     The Wang/EAC episode exposed the political machinery at work in the manufacture of these arguments, and this much more:  the lack of interest in argument, the rejection of honestly proffered lines of inquiry that might, on the data available, put into question the entire propagandistic brief for fraud.  Nothing more defines a political stance on a research question than just this resistance to reasoned argument, on the merits and the data—especially on the data.  It is not that the data developed by Wang and her co-author was conclusive or that it was claimed to be.  But any movement in the direction of disinterested data-gathering and analysis is a threat to the viability of the political program.  It becomes a political problem, to be dealt with politically.

     So we have all this clumsy, suppressive activity at EAC, by those on the outside and inside agitating to keep this material off the record.  Assume that the study had been released:  it could have been answered by its critics, who might have satisfied with the opportunities, surely a good many, to have their say in response.  This was evidently not thought to be enough.  The record had to be adjusted and one of its principal authors "gagged."  Openly conducted discussion was not sufficient; indeed, the study needed to be re-shaped, that is, weakened and reworked, to protect the political flank.

     In this sense, the EAC/Wang episode was a successful study all its own, a revealing look at how the case for "fraud" is manufactured and, in light of its fundamental design, defended.  A case constructed a certain way is, quite naturally, defended the same way:  with raw political tools and materials, considerable assembly required.

Bob Bauer