Donald Trump on Sunday used the platform of the presidency to peddle a fringe conspiracy theory to justify his loss of the popular vote, claiming without evidence that millions of people voted illegally Nov. 8.
Trump’s tweets marked an unprecedented rebuke of the U.S. electoral system by a president-elect and were met with immediate condemnation from voting experts and others. And they offered a troubling indication that Trump’s ascension to the highest political office in the United States may not alter his penchant for repeating unproven conspiracies perpetuated by the far-right.
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump wrote on Twitter. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim and PolitiFact ruled it false.
Election law experts quickly rejected Trump’s claim as farfetched.
“There’s no reason to believe this is true,” said Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine. “The level of fraud in US elections is quite low.”
Hasen added, “The problem of non-citizen voting is quite small — like we’re talking claims in the dozens, we’re not talking voting in the millions, or the thousands, or even the hundreds.”
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research and a former senior trial attorney in the Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, agreed that widespread fraud was unlikely.
“We know historically that this almost never happens,” he said. “You’re more likely to get eaten by a shark that simultaneously gets hit by lightning than to find a non-citizen voting.”
The claim appears to have gained traction in conservative circle after Infowars, the conspiracy theory-laden website, published an article on Nov. 14 under the headline, “Report: 3 million votes in presidential election cast by illegal aliens.”
The story cites an analysis by Gregg Phillips, who claims to be the founder of a voting app named VoteStand and who was previously associated with Newt Gingrich’s Winning Our Future super PAC. No evidence exists that those stories are correct, and Phillips has declined to provide any evidence to reporters or PolitiFact to support his assertions of fraud.
Radio host Alex Jones, who runs Infowars, has faced criticism for promoting unsubstantiated — and often bizarre — conspiracy theories, including that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which resulted in the death of 20 children, is a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton is a “demon from Hell.”
Trump called Jones just days after the election to thank him for his support.
It’s not insignificant that Trump’s tweet also successfully shifted the media narrative away from negative stories about Trump’s many conflicts of interest. The New York Times published a front-page investigation into the conflicts on Sunday.
The president-elect has a long history of pushing debunked conspiracy theories, including the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States and that the election was “rigged” by global elites to assure Hillary Clinton’s victory.
Hillary Clinton is now ahead in the popular vote by about 2.2 million votes, though Trump won the Electoral College by beating Clinton in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.
Trump said on Twitter Sunday that he could have won the popular vote.
“It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 3 or 4 … states instead of the 15 states that I visited. I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten)!” he wrote.
To bolster his claims, Trump has cited a 2014 blog post in The Washington Post by the authors of a disputed study that estimated that “6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.” That study has faced intense scrutiny from election experts, with one analyst telling factcheck.org earlier this year, “Their finding is entirely due to measurement error.”
Trump’s critics have argued that Clinton’s popular vote victory raises questions about whether Trump has a solid mandate to govern.
Trump took to Twitter earlier Sunday, before making assertions of voter fraud, to bash the Clinton campaign’s decision to participate in Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s call for a recount in Wisconsin. “The Green Party scam to fill up their coffers by asking for impossible recounts is now being joined by the badly defeated & demoralized Dems,” he tweeted Saturday.
While there is no evidence of such fraud, Clinton’s campaign agreed to participate “in order to ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides.”
The Obama administration has taken pains to bolster trust in the electoral system, with a senior administration official saying recently that the election results “accurately reflect the will of the American people.”
Presidential historians said Trump’s comments have little precedent.
Princeton historian Julian Zelizer noted that in 1876, both candidates for president — Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes — claimed voter fraud. “But in that case, there was evidence of fraud and corruption in certain areas,” he said in an email.
“In this case, we see the victor making blanket accusation of fraud to legitimize 2.5 million votes,” Zelizer said. “Given there is no evidence to support the claim, this is simply stunning and troubling as a sign as to what he will do as president.”
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