The Public Says Good-Bye to the Trump Voter-Fraud Commission: Introduction to a Series

This post begins a four-part series about some public opinion research I recently did to gauge attitudes about the termination of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  The survey was conducted in late January of a representative sample of adults, sample size of 2,000.  There’s more to be said from this data than can fit into one blog post, which is why I’ve decided to stretch it out across four days.

To whet your appetite for what is to come, here’s the executive summary of the whole series:

  • Respondents were slightly more concerned about voter fraud in January 2018 than immediately before the 2016 election.
  • Respondents were split about 50/50 in whether they followed the work of President Trump’s fraud commission.
  • 44% of respondents agreed with the commission’s termination at least somewhat, 31% disagreed, and 25% had no opinion. A majority of Democrats and a plurality of Republicans approved of its termination.  More knowledgeable respondents were more likely to agree with the termination.
  • Respondents who reported they were already the most concerned about vote fraud report becoming even more concerned about vote fraud when read statements making claims about the frequency of fraud.

Today, I introduce the subject of the series and evidence about overall opinions about vote fraud.  In subsequent days I will touch on knowledge of the commission, options about terminating the commission, and some evidence about messaging concerning vote fraud.

Introduction to the Series

Almost a month ago, President Donald Trump terminated his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  The commission’s request during the summer for states’ voter files set its early life off to a rocky start, and helped create a degree of bipartisan opposition among election administrators that was surprising in its near-unanimity.

Many were worried that the commission would create doubts in the public’s mind about the integrity of the electoral system.  Democrats were especially worried that the commission’s work would lend credibility to discredited claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election.  This could have laid the groundwork for the weakening of voter-registration-protection provisions in the National Voter Registration Act, the “motor voter” law.

We’ll never be able to test whether the greatest fears of the commission’s opponents came to fruition, but we can catch a small glimpse into how the public thought about the commission’s work during its truncated lifetime, and its demise.

To capture a snapshot of public attitudes, I commissioned YouGov to ask a small battery of questions about election fraud and the commission’s demise to 2,000 respondents last week.  (The poll was in the field between January 23 and 26, 2018.  It would have been in the field earlier, but university IRBs move slowly, as they should.)

The questions I asked were intended, first, to see if attention to and worry about voter fraud had changed in the year that has passed since the 2016 election.  I was also interested in whether the public had knowledge about the commission at all, and whether they approved of its termination.  Finally, I wanted to see whether the types of messages the commission may have publicized, had it not been terminated, would have resonated with the public.

There were two major take-aways for me.  The first had to do with the facts.  About half of Americans followed the commission, though a small minority followed it very closely.  The public has become slightly more concerned about voter fraud, compared to the pre-2016 election period, with Democrats showing the most movement.  The public mostly supports the termination of the commission, with Democrats strongly supporting its termination and Republicans being more equivocal.

The second take-away relates to how public opinion works in this partisan era.  For the past decade, as partisanship has started to structure so much of how Americans view politics, the major framing device to understand this phenomenon has been something called “motivated reasoning.”  Applied to opinion about public policy, motivated reasoning helps us understand how citizens interpret new information, including conflicting information, through a partisan lens.  It also helps us understand how people with extreme views just keep getting more extreme.  As we’ll see, when presented with claims about evidence of voter fraud, respondents who were already the most concerned about voter fraud became even more concerned.  The respondents who were the least concerned about fraud out the outset either became less concerned, or didn’t change their stance, when presented with the same claims.

Overall opinions about voter fraud

To start, I asked respondents how concerned they were about voter fraud, along a five-point scale.  The distribution of responses is given in Table 1.

 

Table 1.  Question:  The following are two statements that might be used to describe voting and elections.  Using the scale provided, please indicate which statement more closely describes how you feel. (N = 2,000; 9% gave no response)
I am not concerned about vote fraud

1

2 3 4 5

I am concerned about vote fraud

18% 14% 17% 17%

26%

For simplicity’s sake, let’s call people who rated themselves a 1 or 2 “not concerned” and those who rated themselves a 4 or 5 “concerned.”  Among the respondents, 43% said they were concerned, and 32% said they were not.  (Another 17% were in the middle, plus the 9% who did not respond to the question.)  Not surprisingly, more Republicans (61%) said they were concerned than Democrats (31%).

In contrast, when I asked the identical question in the CCES right before the 2016 election, 37% were concerned and 40%, were not. This shift in opinion across the year — 6 percentage points more saying they were concerned and 8 points fewer saying they were not — is small, but statistically significant.

One interesting detail in this shift is that Democrats, more than Republicans, have moved in the direction of being concerned about fraud over the past year.  A bit over a year ago, 21% of Democrats said they were concerned about vote fraud, compared to 31% last week.  In contrast, 57% of Republicans said they were concerned about voter fraud in 2016, barely any different from the most recent results.

It’s not obvious why Democrats would state they were more worried about fraud across the past year and not Republicans.  One possibility is that Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about what constitutes voter fraud when considered in the abstract.  Democrats may be more likely to think about Russian hacking while Republicans may be thinking about double-voting and non-citizen voting.  Still, there’s a built-in asymmetry in the debate about voter fraud, however it’s defined.  It’s easier to illustrate cases of vote fraud, even when they’re rare, than to illustrate the lack of fraud, similar to the problem of proving a negative.  Plus, Republicans were already much more concerned about voter fraud than Democrats, so that Democrats could more easily be moved in the “worried” direction.

In any event, it looks like the public has moved slightly in the direction of being more concerned about fraud.  Whether that movement was caused by the commission’s work is unclear.  (I suspect the direct causal effect was slight.)  Had the commission been able to continue its business, and had been able to maintain a unified narrative (which is a big “if”), it does appear that public opinion was trending in the direction that was sympathetic to the commission leadership’s policy agenda.

 

Tomorrow’s post: Knowledge about the Commission