Charlie Webster's Bizarre Voter-Fraud Conspiracy Theory

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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Outgoing Maine Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster caused a controversy this week when he raised concerns about voter fraud due to a suspiciously large number of black voters. The Portland Press Herald quotes him:

In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day. . . . Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in (these) towns knows anyone who's black. How did that happen? I don't know. We're going to find out.

Webster’s comments reveal that voter-fraud concerns tend to be thinly veiled racism. He basically is asking, “What are these suspicious black voters up to anyway?” Webster has gotten a lot of criticism for letting the veil slip off, including calls from other Maine Republicans for him to resign. (Webster has since apologized and will be leaving office on Dec. 1 in any case.)

But Webster’s comments also demonstrate how absurd the average voter-fraud claim is. What exactly is Webster alleging was going on? That some Democratic Party operative loaded up a bus of non-resident black people and took them to rural Maine, where they used their fraudulent votes to influence . . . presumably a state senate race or something? Maine, after all, had no competitive federal elections this year.

That seems like a ludicrously inefficient strategy for winning an election. It would mean investing a lot of time and energy into getting people to commit illegal acts. If all went according to plan, the organizing party would have gotten a few dozen more votes. And if it went wrong, people would have gone to jail.

This is why voter-fraud discussions from the right are all grumbling and no prosecutions. I was an intern for a Republican congressional campaign in the Philadelphia area in 2004. The Republican Party operatives I interacted with seemed sincerely convinced that the Democratic "machine" in Philadelphia routinely stole elections through chicanery at polling places, including illegal voting. Similar complaints spun around the conservative blogosphere this November.

Yet Republicans have held the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office for the last 32 years. Rooting out voter fraud in Philadelphia would have been a great career move for any of those attorneys general. That they haven’t done so is a good sign that the fraud isn't actually happening.

You can also see this in the hidden camera scandal that brought down Democratic Virginia Congressman Jim Moran’s field director (who is also his son) this fall. A conservative activist approached Patrick Moran about a plan to bring ineligible voters to the polls to vote for Democrats. Patrick Moran initially pushed back on the idea, not raising a moral objection to illegal voting, but pointing out that it seemed like a less efficient use of resources than legal means of getting out the vote.

Voting is arguably irrational behavior. Voting more than once, or voting in a way that risks criminal prosecution, is far more irrational. Trying to get people to do so is a bad strategy. And that is why voter fraud, while it might be rampant in the conservative imagination, is rare in real life.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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