“Don’t fall for claims of voter fraud. Error is more likely the case, and errors don’t swing elections”

I have written this piece for the LA Times. It begins:

Let’s admit this now: We are not going to have a perfect election in November. We never have perfect elections.

There will be reports of ballots sent to voters that end up in the trash or in a ditch. We may hear about a box of ballots never delivered to voters or election officials by the post office. There may be isolated instances of fraud, or of things that initially look like fraud but turn out to be election administrator error.

This doesn’t mean we won’t have a fair election overall, and we should not allow cynical political operatives to parlay small-bore errors into a full-scale attack on the integrity of the November vote.

The controversy that bubbled up on Thursday over nine mishandled ballots in Luzerne County, Pa., illustrates the danger ahead. Even before the Department of Justice issued its announcement, President Trump and his team were complaining that mail-in ballots from military voters cast for him were being thrown into the trash, a claim fitting into his narrative — unsupported by the facts — that massive voter fraud will be used to take a November victory away from him. ABC News reported that Atty. Gen. William Barr briefed Trump on the case before it was publicly announced.

The Justice Department bungled the facts with premature announcements. Nine Trump votes were not tossed. That news release was rescinded and replaced: Seven of the ballots had been marked for Trump; two were unopened. Then came yet more information: A memo from Luzerne County that suggested there was no criminal activity related to the ballots, just administrative error. A temporary contract election worker on the job for only three days may have believed the envelopes contained applications for absentee ballots, not votes. The worker was fired when the error was discovered.

The clarifications did not stop a flood of conservative media stories blowing up the situation as some kind of evidence of a massive conspiracy to throw the election. The Luzerne County story is troubling, but not because it showed deliberate tampering. Instead it showed how political operatives — this time acting through the Justice Department — could try to give mistakes the aura of a stolen election for political gain. Whatever one thinks about the department announcing an ongoing political investigation in the midst of the election season (which goes against the DOJ’s own standards and practices), there is no non-political reason for releasing information about how the ballots were marked. This was an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign by the Justice Department….

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