Voter Fraud, Voter Suppression, and Attacks on Stacey Abrams: Weird Bothsideism

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the practitioners of the dark side of public opinion polling is Frank Luntz, who has for a long time been many reporters' go-to source as a "Republicans pollster."  Luntz is most famous within the small group of people who pay attention to these things as the inventor of the term "death tax" as a substitute for the estate tax.  Does it matter that the estate tax is not a death tax, or that there is no such thing as a death tax, or that even if there were such thing as a death tax (and if the estate tax were an example of it), it would actually be worse if wealth were taxable at any time other than death?

Not according to Luntz, who once summed up his basic approach with disturbing candor: "A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth."  His oeuvre includes the usual run of Republican political correctness, from referring to the "Democrat Party" to calling environmental rules "Washington regulations."  If Orwellian DNA had been injected into the place where Mitch McConnell's heart should be, something like Luntz would have emerged.
More recently, Luntz has been trying to pretend to be nonpartisan, or at least trying to understand Trumpian partisanship.  After a recent set of focus groups and polling, Luntz reported that Republicans believe that the biggest problem facing the political system is voter fraud, with about 60 percent citing that non-problem and only about 20 percent citing voter suppression.  Democrats were the mirror opposite, with about 60 percent citing voter suppression and 20 percent voter fraud.  The remaining 20 percent were presumably "other" or "no answer."

But here is where Luntz cannot hide his true colors.  He claimed that both sides are wrong.  Why?  Republicans are wrong because there is no evidence of anything beyond the most minimal and inconsequential voting irregularities.  Democrats?  Why, golly gosh, they too are wrong, because the 2020 election had historically high turnout.  See?  No voter suppression!

This is pernicious in the extreme, not just on its own terms but also as a connection to the Republicans' lie that Stacey Abrams, one of the most famous victims of blatant voter suppression, never gave a concession speech -- just like Trump!  Both sides are equally to blame for political warfare.  Q.E.D.  Really?

Luntz's attempt to juxtapose voter fraud and voter suppression is an example of failing (deliberately, in Luntz's case) to distinguish between snapshots and trends.  Yes, voter fraud is (still) all but nonexistent; and yes, voter turnout in 2020 was high.  But that hardly captures why voters might be worried about either problem, which means that it also fails to capture who is being insane and who is grounded in reality.

Before explaining that larger issue, however, it is important to emphasize that even the snapshot that Luntz summarized is not at all the mirror image that he claims.  Out of almost 160 million ballots cast in the 2020 general election, and even with Republicans offering rewards to anyone who can prove that dead people voted (or whatever), there were only a handful of cases of voter fraud.  When fraud has been proved, moreover, some of it has been in Trump's favor.

In short, Democrats who think that voter fraud is not a problem are objectively correct, because it is as close to zero as we could possibly hope.  (Honestly, where did Luntz find 20% of Democrats who think it is a serious threat?).  For Republicans to think that this is a problem that threatens the foundations of our democracy, they have to believe that up is down and day is night.  Yet that is the basis of Trump's Big Lie, to which the vast majority of Republicans are committed.

By contrast, the snapshot of voter suppression in 2020 is nowhere near the non-problem that Luntz suggests.  Yes, turnout was higher last year than in other recent elections, but that is a low bar indeed.  In 2020, the voting-age population was almost 258 million, of which 239 million were eligible, and just under 160 million voted.  Voter suppression happens both in keeping potentially eligible voters ineligible (where the eligible pool includes "all citizens who are not excluded from voting because of some legal impediment," among whom are disenfranchised former felons) and in keeping eligible voters from registering and voting.
About 98 million American adults did not vote in 2020, so if even millions "should" be ineligible for various innocuous reasons, and if some truly do not want to vote, it is hardly a stretch to think that just maybe we have a voter suppression problem.

But this, of course, relies on indirect evidence where direct evidence is available.  Republicans (and Southern Democrats who became today's most racist Republicans) have been quite openly suppressing votes forever, with voter purges and arbitrary restrictions combining with efforts to keep lines long in Democratic-leaning precincts (and limit drop-off boxes in cities) to keep down Democratic voting.  There is no mystery here.  Republicans have said what they were doing, and they have done it.

Again, however, all of those problems are limited to the snapshot point of view.  If Luntz asks someone, "Are you worried about voter suppression?" even someone who wrongly thinks that the relatively high turnout in 2020 is evidence of non-suppressed voting could be worried that votes are going to be suppressed in the future.  If Republicans were not already blatant about it before now, their slew of proposals in 43 states are about as shameless and overt as imaginable, blocking potentially tens of millions of voters in upcoming elections.

All of which brings us to Stacey Abrams, who became famous, after a stellar early career in Georgia state politics, for an achingly close losing gubernatorial bid in 2018.  There, her opponent (Brian Kemp, now on Trump's naughty list for failing to help steal Georgia's electoral votes) was the Secretary of State who presided over a well-documented and quite strategic purge that knocked 340,000 Georgians off the voter rolls.  Kemp ended up winning by fewer than 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast.

A bitterly disappointed Abrams decided not to paper over the injustice, and she was quite aggressive in challenging the results.  When she had exhausted all options, however, she conceded peacefully (though grudgingly).

Ah, but wait, you say.  Is it not true that Abrams never conceded?  Dorf on Law's comment board, for example, was briefly visited in December and January by a troll who (among other things, including claiming that Viktor Orban is Hungary's autocrat because he is the people's choice) insisted that Abrams did not concede.  But is that merely another falsehood that has been invented by Trumpists?

Actually, this distorted story went mainstream, so it was not limited to the fringes of internet loons.  On November 18, 2020, NPR (which is very definitely not part of the right-wing fever swamps) ran a story under the headline: "Trump Hasn't Conceded Georgia. Neither Did Stacey Abrams. What Changed?"  The story includes this: "A refusal to concede isn't a new concept to Georgia. The 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, also refused to concede to her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp."  Later, the reporter writes: "Abrams lost by nearly 55,000 votes and never did concede."
Which is false.  On Quartz, Heather Timmons wrote an article in November 2018 headlined: "Stacey Abrams’ concession speech is a powerful critique of US civil rights."  But did Abrams not explicitly say in that speech that she was not conceding?  Timmons correctly described it as "a non-concession concession speech."
Abrams, in fact, said this: "So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.  Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede."  Abrams argued that "stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people, and I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right."
She then added this: "But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy."  Even more strongly, this: "Now, I could certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don’t want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post."
Not a lot of Trumpiness there.  Certainly, Trump never gave either a concession speech or a non-concession concession speech.  He continues to this day to insist that Congress should have thrown out the votes, with Mike Pence leading the way.  Oh, and there is also January 6, which is a rather major difference.

So Abrams admitted (that is, conceded) that she had lost the election, she acknowledged that her legal challenges had failed, and she said that in fact she would not pursue a lone remaining long-shot legal challenge.  Her speech was a concession speech that included the statements, "This is not a speech of concession," and "I will not concede," but she made it very clear why she was drawing the line at using that word: what had happened was not right, true, or proper.  And then she conceded in every way except using that exact word.

Abrams could point to genuine evidence that her opponent -- who was in charge of running Georgia's elections even as he ran for higher office -- had engaged in voter suppression on a massive scale.  She tried to fight it, and she lost.  She did not play nice, and she gave an impassioned speech in which she refused to say all the right words that nice boys and girls are supposed to mouth graciously.  At worst, she is guilty of bad form.

But once again, not just Republicans but the "to be fair" instinct in the mainstream media have combined to turn this all into a case of "both sides do it."  Apparently, not only are Democrats supposed to pretend that Republicans' fears of voter fraud are "causing concern among some voters."  When Democrats lose close races after Republicans cynically suppress votes, Democrats are supposed to say, "Jolly good show, old chap.  Well played."  And if they do not, they are no better than Donald Trump and his corrupt efforts to overturn multiple states' election results.  Sounds about right.