Originally Published in The Washington Post
Analysis by Philip Bump - March 16, 2021
The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) spent a lot of time, about 22,000 person-hours, scouring the state for examples of fraud last year. It found 16 cases in which people used false addresses when registering to vote. That’s about one problematic registration for every million voters in the state as of January 2020 and a rate of one problematic registration for every 57 days of time spent looking. None of those cases resulted in criminal charges.
At Texas’s southern border, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to the prospect of terrorists sneaking into the United States from Mexico. The State Department’s most recent report on the question, issued last year, found “no credible evidence indicating international terrorist groups established bases in Mexico, worked directly with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.”
When the question was a focus of attention in early 2019, reporting indicated that the Trump administration’s presentation of thousands of potential terrorists being stopped depended heavily on blurred lines: conflating “people on the terror watch list” with “terrorists” and including any incident in which someone was prevented entry to the United States — including, for example, those blocked from flying from Europe into the country. In the first six months of fiscal 2018 (October 2017 through March), six noncitizens on the terrorist watch list were stopped at the border with Mexico. It’s not clear that any were apprehended trying to cross the border between checkpoints.
At no point did President Donald Trump or his administration identify any terrorist caught at the border. Yet we still hear about the rampant threat of voter fraud, and we still hear about the dangers of imminent terrorist infiltration over the border with Mexico.
We heard about the latter on Monday, in fact. Rep. John Katko (N.Y.) visited the border with other Republican lawmakers, hoping to call attention to what they presented as failures on the part of the Biden administration. Katko’s remarks to reporters included a grim warning.
“People they’ve caught in the last few days over there in Sector Three or Monument Three have been on the terror watch lists,” he said. “Individuals that they have on the watch list for terrorism are now starting to exploit the Southern border.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) later put a fine point on the nefariousness at hand, saying that “Yemen, Iran, Sri Lanka, that's what's coming across.”
What’s important to remember about this line of rhetoric is that the current crisis at the border is a function of an overwhelming number of migrants seeking entry through checkpoints. The implication from Katko and McCarthy is, instead, that dangerous people are rushing across an unprotected border to wreak havoc in the United States. It’s an effort to leverage long-fostered concerns about terrorism to cast on the Biden administration’s policies.
The same holds true for claims of voter fraud. Hundreds of pieces of legislation have been proposed or introduced in recent months to change the way elections are run in the United States. Most are predicated to at least some degree on vague claims of fraud elevated by Trump and his allies over the past year. Here, again, the alleged fraud mostly serves as a rhetorical tool to bolster the desired outcome. (As we pointed out on Monday, scaling back early voting hours doesn’t even pretend to address purported fraud claims.)
In more cynical iterations, the fear caused by the rhetoric is used as a rationale for combating fraud, with some lawmakers citing constituents’ concerns about fraud as a reason to overhaul policies that expand access to voting. It’s fundamentally lazy, pointing not to a threat but to concern about a potential threat as a motivation for action.
Again, the policy goal exists almost entirely outside of the rationale used to justify the goal. The desired outcome with new laws on voting is often to constrain access to voting in ways that disadvantage Democratic voters. The desired outcomes on the border are both to pressure Biden and to implement a more hard-line approach to migrants.
This is a tactic that is by no means solely a function of the Republican Party. Republicans have other rhetorical points in support of their desired policy outcomes, such as easier elections administration and overcrowding in migrant detention facilities. But this focus on anecdotal and nonrepresentative concerns is very much a feature of right-wing rhetoric in the moment. Trump’s ascent in the 2016 primary was to a large extent a function of his willingness to falsely cast immigrants as dangerous, for example, using cherry-picked or isolated examples. The much-loved tactic of whataboutism — responding to an assertion with a purportedly equivalent incident from the other side of the political spectrum — is often predicated on choosing an anecdotal or trivial incident that through sheer force of will is meant to bring the political scales into balance. It takes a lot of time and evidence to explain that voter fraud isn’t rampant or sufficiently substantial to affect a federal election and very little time to rebut that evidence by saying, “Yeah, but dead people are still registered to vote.”
It’s interesting to evaluate which risks political actors think are worth trying to stop in their entirety, at least rhetorically. Republicans, for example, are adamant that one case of voter fraud is reason enough to overhaul an entire state’s mail-in voting program. One mass shooting, however, yields a different interpretation of necessary urgency. Such incidents are rare, but the response from the right is often that this rarity eliminates the need for a response — clearly a different approach as that applied to alleged voter fraud.
There is no evidence of any substantial or exceptional risk of terrorist infiltration at the southern border. There is similarly no evidence of rampant voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. There is, however, evidence that false claims of fraud spurred violent action in Washington that spun out of an event attended by dozens of people who were on the terrorist watch list.
“We love you,” Trump said of the attendees at that event. “You’re very special.”