On the Alabama Special Senate Election: Meme of Voter Fraud Edition

Late Wednesday night, the campaign to elect Judge Roy Moore to the vacant Alabama Senate seat sought to enjoin the Secretary of State for Alabama from certifying the result of the December 14, 2017 special election where Moore lost to Doug Jones. The basis: allegations of rampant voter fraud apparently among and related to African American voters that need to be investigated. Fortunately for us, an Alabama judge denied the motion to enjoin the certification and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

It is easy to write this off as a last-ditch attempt of a disgraced candidate to stop the inevitable. But we should reflect on the larger context. Once again, the meme of voter fraud — the rampant supposition without proof that illegal voters (largely voters of color) are distorting our elections through voter impersonation — rears its head again as a direct weapon to suppress the votes for Jones. This use of the specter of voter fraud as weapon against the word of voters, particularly minority voters, is nothing new. And it’s the new normal in the post-Trump world.

As you know, Jones defeated Moore largely due to the significant turnout of the Black vote and anemic moderate Republican vote. The day after the election, I argued that this happened despite voter suppression laws seemingly designed to stymie the transformative power that a fully enabled and mobilized African-American vote would represent.

Yet, the day after the election the meme of voter fraud emerged. In this case, the meme apparently starts publicly here, when Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii), who is, apparently, “a famously outspoken Trump supporter,” tweeted this:

Bill Mitchell's tweet alleging voter fraud in the Alabama Senate special election

And there’s the meme of voter fraud in one tweet — the explanation for the higher turnout that swung the election was not lack of enthusiasm for a candidate who allegedly sought sexual relations with teenage girls, or the Alabaman African-American turnout that rivaled 2012 or 2016 turnout (coupled with lagging moderate white conservative turnout). It was voter impersonation — Mississippian voters impersonating Alabaman voters. The comments to this tweet included accusations of election rigging by outsiders, a “mysterious convoy of black buses,” and something completely random about the War on Christmas.

On December 13, Twitter responded with sarcastic comments like this:

Asia Chloe Brown's tweet responding to Bill Mitchell

But with the December 27 complaint by the Moore campaign, the meme is once again elevated to a last-ditch adversarial tool with the apparent end to subvert the will of the people. Yet the campaign’s complaint basically makes the same argument uttered in the tweets and comments. (1) irregular high turnout by black voters raises suspicion of voter fraud; (2) rumors of voter impersonation voter fraud by outsider voters raise concern; (3) outside partisan involvement (what other people call “politics”) raises suspicion; and (4) statistical analyses by election fraud experts raise suspicion. Moreover, in a quite-odd paragraph 22 of the complaint, we also see the Moore campaign seeking vindication of the truthfulness of their candidate in relation to the allegations that he sought sexual relations with teenage girls:

Paragraph 2 of Roy Moore's complaint

This, somehow, bolsters Judge Moore’s credibility.

Clearly this is a last-ditch effort to forestall the conclusion reached by the Alabama Secretary of State, the Republican Party, President Trump, and, in at least this instance, an Alabama judge — that Jones beat Moore fair and square.

And yet, these allegations should be situated in the larger context of the evolution of the meme of voter fraud into a political weapon designed to distort elections, which started as long ago as 2000 in the hotly contested race between then-Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri and the late governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan. In the face of a loss to a dead man, the Ashcroft camp argued that dead voters in Missouri tipped the balance. Nothing came of this as Ashcroft went on to be Attorney General and, through investigations by his Department of Justice, put in-person voter impersonation voter fraud on the map. And this leant credence to the movement for voter identification laws.

More famously and recently, President Trump argued via Twitter that the participation of “illegal voters” (read, illegal immigrants) were the reason why he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. A year later, President Trump has offered nothing in the way of proof to support this allegation. Also, in the election of 2016, Pat McCrory, who lost the governor’s office in North Carolina to then-Attorney General Roy Cooper, alleged a mass conspiracy of voter fraud denied him the election. Like Moore, McCrory filed objections and when those objections were denied, he sought a recount. The recount, and a subsequent audit by the North Carolina Board of Elections showed few irregularities, including several hundred miscast votes by former felons, some double voting, and one — ONE — vote out of the 4.5 million cast in the North Carolina 2016 gubernatorial race that could have been forestalled by voter identification laws. Voting errors are to be expected, and in North Carolina, those errors certainly did not amount to a grand conspiracy by the Democrats — what McCrory alleged — to steal the election.

Moore’s post-election litigation in the face of the door closing on his campaign fits this same pattern. And, true to form, a judge has declined to equate rumor and innuendo with proof — or even concern — sufficient to stop the mechanisms of democracy from working. The influence of political outsiders, the rumors of black votes being bussed in from Mississippi, and higher than expected African American turnout in predominantly African American counties (which, by the way, was at the same rate as for Clinton last year, as I noted earlier) does not equate to a mass conspiracy of voter fraud.

Alleging a mass conspiracy of voter fraud with nothing but rumor is a bad play. No major state or national election has been reversed because of the meme of voter fraud. Yet it persists because it is a political statement. It is a politics that exists around the idea that the meme is real, and therefore such subversion ought to be opposed. This kind of paranoia can motivate voters. And so, it becomes the equivalent of a party line.

On another level, this use of the meme of voter fraud to attempt to thwart an election is really another battle in the war over American identity. In Alabama, we saw the power of the black vote met with unbelievable conspiracy theories. To make such a claim of voter fraud without tangible proof is to engage in identity politics of the worse kind. It is to delegitimize the votes of citizens because of a set presumption against their citizens’ worthiness through complaining about their votes’ validity. This parrots our too tragic history of violence against minority voting by legislative means. 

But it is also the old tactics of voter suppression coming into their own in the era of Trump. This won’t be the last you will hear of the meme of voter fraud.

Give Us the Ballot: On the Alabama Special Senate Election, Voter Suppression, and the Black Vote

In May 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a landmark speech in Washington, DC. This address, entitled, “Give Us the Ballot” was King’s vision about how Black voting power could transform the apartheid South. In particular, he said:

“Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a ‘Southern Manifesto’ because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.”

Maybe we had a foretaste of King’s foresight as we watched the African American vote defeat Judge Roy Moore and elect Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, a state at the heart of Trump conservatism. And maybe we also saw a glimpse of how an empowered Black vote can be a threat to establishments that rely on their marginalization.

But let me confess up front that I predicted Moore would win—and win outside of the margin of error–because of how Alabama had been dominated by Trump in the 2016 election and how Alabamans had elected Moore twice to statewide office (after he had been removed once and suspended once from his judgeship for violating the U.S. Constitution).

And I also knew that Alabama’s strict voter identification law, its efforts to make such identification less available, and its efforts to modulate (but not eradicate) the collateral consequences of criminal convictions that bar voting all made Alabama a focal point of the voter suppression wars.

Thus, this election was both a referendum on the divisive gender and racial politics of Donald Trump and a test of the ability of the Black community to surmount the effects of voter suppression. And I was a pessimist about both.

In a world absent the allegations that Moore had romantically pursued teenage girls while a District Attorney, absent his Islamophobic stances, and absent the prominence given to various reactionary claims, e.g., all the amendments after the Tenth are “problematic,” I probably would have been right. But all this came to light, and it demobilized white voters and energized Black voters. And that cost Moore the election.

Exit polls reveal that Black voters overwhelmingly voted for Jones and white voters voted overwhelming for Moore. Here’s the data as summarized by the Washington Post:

Roy Moore Doug Jones Alabama senate election exit poll chart from the Washington Post

This was a perfect storm to cause the defeat of Trump’s chosen candidate in the heart of the Trump campaign’s base.

But the data makes two key points: first, the base of white Republican voters voted overwhelmingly for Moore despite the rhetoric and the accusations. This echoes the outcome of the 2016 election. However, fewer moderate Republicans voted for Moore; they instead supported Jones. Had there been more Republican party unity, or a more respectable candidate, the Republicans would probably have won. And presumably, in the next election cycle, Alabama Republicans will unite behind a more respectable candidate.

But this is not to deny the strength of Black voting power. African American voters were consistent with their performance in 2016 in opposing the Trump-Moore politics. This to me is a glimmer of King’s prophesy of how African Americans would use the vote to oppose white supremacy in the name of justice. They compared Moore to Jones and selected the person who they thought was “a man of goodwill.”

This happened despite the post-Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder era of voter suppression to use voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, and structural efforts to make it more difficult for poor black Alabaman voters. I have previously discussed Alabama’s voter identification laws and the strong risk that such IDs would be unavailable to poor black voters due to DMV closings in the Black Belt (the counties in Alabama which are over 80% black and where there is high poverty). In a recent academic paper, I extend these arguments to talk about how there is a little-discussed structural problem when it comes to failing to prioritize the right to vote—and that structural misgiving can have voter suppression consequences. I have also discussed the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Alabama legislature’s effort to racially gerrymander state districts to pack black voters and preserve white Republican political power.

In short, Alabama is a front line of the post-Shelby County voter suppression wars.

Black voters turned out despite the barriers, and the efforts of civil rights groups to overcome the barriers deserve praise. Between that and the white voters who damned him by few votes, Moore lost.

It is tempting to argue that Black voters’ ability to organize and vote despite voter suppression means voter suppression claims are overblown. That reasoning is faulty. Being able to surmount an illegitimate difficulty doesn’t make the difficulty any less illegitimate. Moreover, numerous federal courts have used the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to strike down voter identification laws because of their potentially disparate discriminatory impact.

The evidence brought in court included academic studies, the documentation of the intent to suppress minority votes, and the statistical risk of disparate effects. It all supports the claim that strict voter identification laws, arbitrary and last-minute changes in the timing of voting, and arbitrary enforcement have been used in concert to unnecessarily intimidate and unduly burden the right to vote (rather than making voting more efficient or secure). This battle continues in Alabama and elsewhere to secure the legacy of the right to vote.

King foresaw what that legacy could be. He knew that the African American electorate could transform the South if voter suppression barriers were removed and African Americans brought the vote to bear. Roy Moore’s defeat by African American voters gave us a glimpse of this transformative power. But it’s also a reminder that the voter suppression war can still be lost.

And it also forces us to wonder anew if this new era of voter suppression exists because of fear of the Black ballot.

Cross-posted on Race and the Law Prof Blog.