The Presidential Election Was Legitimate. Conspiracies Are Not.

Debunking the right’s most viral claims of fraud.

In the hours and days since the polls closed on Tuesday, it seems we’ve seen a condensed and intensified version of many of the worst maladies of this low era in American politics. In my last newsletter, I concentrated mainly on a single issue—why the election was much closer than most people (including me!) predicted. As we watched the polling averages crumble in state after state, we witnessed yet another failure in yet another important American institution.

In this newsletter, I’m shifting focus—to the incredible avalanche of misinformation that’s swamping right-wing media and therefore much of Republican America. The misinformation is so prevalent and so toxic that it’s leading to utterly hysterical and dangerous pronouncements from leading public figures.

The president’s press conference yesterday was an appalling collection of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods. Even stalwart Trump defenders like former senator Rick Santorum pushed back immediately, declaring that “No Republican elected official will stand behind Trump’s statement.”

Yet the president’s rhetoric was matched or exceeded by other influential Republicans. This, for example, was Newt Gingrich sharing many of the same falsehoods, comparing the present moment to the Battle of Gettysburg, and calling for the arrest of election workers:

And then Mark Levin, one of the most popular talk radio personalities in the nation (and a Fox News host), tweeted this, in all caps:

REMINDER TO THE REPUBLICAN STATE LEGISLATURES, YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY OVER THE CHOOSING OF ELECTORS, NOT ANY BOARD OF ELECTIONS, SECRETARY OF STATE, GOVERNOR, OR EVEN COURT. YOU HAVE THE FINAL SAY—ARTICLE II OF THE FED CONSTITUTION. SO, GET READY TO DO YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL DUTY.

To be clear, this is a call for Republican legislators to defy existing state laws, defy contrary court rulings, and defy the majority of their own state’s voters (as evidenced by the actual vote count) to independently reinstall Trump as president.

And, of course, Donald Trump Jr. promptly retweeted Levin’s tweet. He also demanded that other Republicans join the fight:

How should we think of the state of play? Aside from the ordinary (and considerable) sting of a presidential loss, is there any objective reason for this extraordinary amount of hysteria? Is the election, in fact, being stolen?

The short answer is no. There is zero evidence of either fraud or other unlawful irregularity sufficient to cast the emerging result into doubt. That’s not the same thing as saying there has been no fraud. That’s not the same thing as saying there have been no unlawful irregularities. But we still can have confidence in the outcome.

Let’s walk through some of the most viral claims of malfeasance and irregularity. As you’ll see, this newsletter will rely heavily on the extraordinary work of our Dispatch Fact Check team. Without further ado—and in question-and-answer form—let the debunking commence.

Should I be suspicious about the fact that the vote counting is taking so long? No. While it’s frustrating to wait (and the wait seems unusual), it’s actually more normal than you might realize and—especially in Pennsylvania—the product of deliberate state political choices. The state government could not agree to begin counting mailed-in ballots before election day, so election workers were presented with a huge backlog of ballots on November 3. Counting them takes time.

In addition, since election outcomes are often called early, we’re rarely conscious of how long it ordinarily takes multiple states to count their votes. For example, Americans are frustrated by allegedly slow counts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona—but as I type, each of these states has reported a larger percentage of their results than Ohio, California, New York, or Alaska. Simply put, complete counts take time.

Should I be suspicious that mail-in ballots are overwhelmingly Democratic? No. While mail-in balloting hasn’t always been partisan, this election season the president openly scorned mail-in balloting, and Democrats were also generally more concerned about COVID-19. The result was a predictable (and predicted) partisan divide in mail-in versus in-person results.

Should I be suspicious of the extraordinary turnout numbers in swing states? No. Our crack fact check team has debunked a viral claim that Wisconsin turnout exceeded the number of registered voters. Turnout was “high” but “not a record.”

In addition, multiple viral claims of unusual turnout were driven by right-wing personalities and party officials who apparently do not understand the difference between turnout as a percentage of eligible voters (those eligible adults who’ve registered plus those who have not) versus turnout as a percentage of registered voters only. Here’s Politico’s Tim Alberta with a brief explanation:

But weren’t there a number of highly-suspicious and unusual “ballot dumps” that altered the numbers? Again, no. Here’s our fact check team responding to two of the most prominent claims—first that there was an irregular recording of more than 23,000 votes, “all for Biden”:

Aaron Bycoffe, a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight, told The Dispatch Fact Check that it’s not unusual to see an update that includes votes for only one candidate. “Election officials and vote tabulators occasionally enter results one candidate at a time, and it looks like that’s what happened here,” said Bycoffe. “That would explain why Trump had zero votes in this one update. His votes would have been added in a subsequent update.”

Bycoffe said that the following update was “considerably more Trump-leaning than others from around that time,” suggesting that it contained the Trump ballots that had not been included in the previous update.

And second, that Michigan magically found more than 130,000 votes, again for Biden:

What happened … was this: Decision Desk HQ [a non-partisan election news and analysis site] imported into their model a piece of county-level data that had one extra zero in the Biden column, giving Biden an apparent huge boost in his Michigan numbers. When the error was discovered, it was edited out, and Biden’s numbers dropped back into the correct place.

As some Twitter users pointed out, this means that the side-by-side screenshots of the Decision Desk HQ data used to suggest that Biden had rocketed up while other candidates stayed in place are actually reversed. In the first screenshot Biden has 1,992,356 votes and in the second screenshot he has 2,130,695 votes, making it seem like there was a quick jump of 138,339 ballots in Biden’s favor. In reality, once Decision Desk HQ updated the Shiawassee County number, Biden’s numbers decreased 138,339 votes: 2,130,695 down to 1,992,356.

It’s important to stress, too, that all this was purely clerical—a data entry hiccup, not in ballot counting itself. No new ballots were “found.”

(It’s also worth noting that Pennsylvania ballots that have arrived after election day have been segregated pending the resolution of active litigation, and their count is not included in the official total.)

Okay, but I’ve heard that Republicans have been barred from observing the count. Is that true? No. It is true that there have been disputes about the number of observers and their proximity to the count (and observers have been permitted to approach closer to the count), but Republicans are not on the outside, looking in as election workers do their job. This exchange, between Philadelphia federal district court judge Paul Diamond and Trump campaign lawyers, is both illuminating and humorous:

And remember that now-famous scene of election workers papering over the windows of a ballot-counting center in Michigan? That was indeed strange, but here’s the larger context:

The windows to the center were covered with paper early in the day because some challengers tried to take pictures or videotape the counting process. Many ballot counters felt intimidated and asked for security to address the issue. But the paper on the windows caused challengers to bang on the glass even harder.   

Did that mean there were no challengers inside? To the contrary, there were hundreds present:

Under election rules, each group contesting the vote is allowed to have 134 challengers monitor the counting process.

But early on Wednesday, about 400 challengers were freely roaming the room as poll workers counted the 25,000 absentee ballots from Detroiters.

That included: 134 Republican challengers; 134 Democratic challengers and 134 nonpartisan challengers, including groups like the ACLU and the League of Women voters.

Wait. It looks like there were multiple jurisdictions where down-ballot Republicans received more votes than the president. Isn’t that suspicious? No. It’s evidence of the existence of one of the most talked-about constituencies in American politics—the Never Trump conservative.

One source of this argument comes from a piece at The Federalist. The writer asked, “We’re supposed to believe the GOP had a great election night except for the president?” Her column included this rather remarkable paragraph:

It would be mystifying if Republicans won more seats in the House, retained the Senate, and picked up state legislative seats, all while the same voters voted against Trump. Trump has solidified his support among Republican voters and enjoys a massive approval rating from them he didn’t have in 2016, and expanded his coalition to more working-class and minority voters this year. This is not a blue wave year. This is a year that the blue wave of 2018 appears to be receding.

It's not mystifying at all. It reflects one of the most talked-about debates in American politics since 2016—whether disgruntled Republicans should “burn down” the GOP or instead vote against the president while trying to preserve the rest of the party.

For example, here was my argument in a World magazine interview published in September:

So, you are cheering for Joe Biden? I do not want Donald Trump to win reelection. Absolutely not. I want Trump to lose to Biden and the Republican Party to retain the Senate. That would prevent a triumphalist sweeping away of institutions like the filibuster. It would check any temptation to pack the courts, for example. It would remove from the field the worst-case scenarios at the same time that you remove from the field a president who has done more than any single human being in my lifetime to divide this country—and governed incompetently while he did it.

You’d want affluent conservatives to help Republican senatorial candidates? If they’re conservative like me and typically donate to a Republican president, I would say do not donate to this Republican president. Spend your money to save good Republicans on down-ballot races who now face long odds for reelection.

It increasingly looks like a significant number of Americans shared this philosophy. Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini has been busy documenting this reality. Here are the Senate numbers:

And here’s the House:

That’s not evidence of fraud. That’s evidence of choice.

I’ve tried to deal with the principal claims of fraud and irregularity, but I have no doubt that more allegations will emerge. In evaluating those claims, here’s a good rule of thumb—do not believe tweets or Facebook posts. Don’t take them seriously. Instead, look for evidence presented in sworn court documents.

There is a veritable army of GOP lawyers who are chomping at the bit to challenge these election results. If there is actual evidence of fraud substantial enough to alter the outcome of the election, those claims will not remain on Twitter. They will not remain on Sean Hannity or on talk radio. They will end up in federal court, where they’ll be exposed to a searching and critical inquiry. For you law geeks out there, look not to Twitter but to PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) to discern whether there is any merit to the most alarmist of claims.

There are votes still to count—and nothing is certain yet—but the emerging reality is that Joe Biden is set to beat Trump by a more significant vote margin than that by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Trump’s behind in the popular vote. He lost Wisconsin by a similar vote total that beat Clinton. He lost Michigan by a far more substantial number than he won it with in 2016. And he’s likely (we’ll see!) to ultimately lose Pennsylvania by a larger margin than he won it with as well. It’s also probable that he lost two traditionally red states—Arizona and Georgia.

That’s not theft. It’s defeat. The counting must continue and all legal challenges must be heard, but as of this moment there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that should cause Americans to believe that this election was illegitimate, and it is shameful and dangerous for anyone to suggest or allege otherwise.

One last thing …

Look, I know the presidential race is important and all, but do you know what’s also important? SpaceX’s quest for Mars. And there’s an important upcoming test of SpaceX’s Starship—the key to its Mars mission. Details below, and watch this space for updates!

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.