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Voters Have To Wade Through Fraud Rhetoric To Get To The Truth


Having passed a much-debated resolution on anti-Semitism, House Democrats try to move on today. They vote on a bill that, among other things, is intended to protect voting rights. That's a big issue for Democrats, although the national debate over it is hard to follow because of the way that political leaders choose to talk about the issue. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A new election has been called for North Carolina's 9th Congressional District because of widespread evidence that absentee ballots were tampered with last November. It's probably one of the most blatant cases of election fraud in recent U.S. history. But when President Trump was asked about it, he bundled what happened in North Carolina with some dubious allegations.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I condemn any election fraud. And when I look at what's happened in California with the votes, when I look at what happened - as you know, there was just a case where they found a million fraudulent votes. When I look at what's happened in Texas...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There haven't been any cases. This is an actual case.

TRUMP: ...Excuse me. Excuse me.

FESSLER: A reporter interrupts because, actually, no one did find a million fraudulent votes in California. And there's more.


TRUMP: When I look at what's happened in Texas, when I look at that catastrophe that took place in Florida where the Republican candidates kept getting less, and less, and less...

FESSLER: Republicans got less and less as more and more mail-in ballots were counted. In Texas, the president's referring to unproven claims that tens of thousands of noncitizens voted illegally - a claim state officials have since walked back. Increasingly, politicians are using words like fraud to describe things they don't like about the voting process or that might be unfavorable to them.

CHRIS THOMAS: It's really inappropriate for elected officials who know better that voter fraud, election fraud is extremely rare.

FESSLER: Chris Thomas ran elections in the state of Michigan for 36 years and has pretty much seen it all. He says unsubstantiated claims of fraud only confuse voters and erode public confidence. He thinks that's a bigger threat to voting than fraud or other irregularities.

THOMAS: By gnawing at that confidence, it's just one more, kind of, chink in the armor, if you will, that undermines our democracy.

FESSLER: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is also disturbed by the trend and is working with other election officials to encourage more thoughtful debate. He says, unfortunately, politicians have found that such rhetoric works.

FRANK LAROSE: If you want to get your base excited, if you want to get people to donate to your campaign, if you want to get people to show up at your rally, you push that hyperbole button. You do the fear mongering about widespread fraud or widespread suppression, and people are going to respond to it. But again, it's not true.

FESSLER: LaRose, who's a Republican, also faults some on the left for frequently using words like purge and voter suppression, which he says makes things seem worse than they are. Here's Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell talking recently about last year's election in Georgia.


TERRY SEWELL: The person who is running for governor, who was also the secretary of state, purged more than 53,000 voters.

FESSLER: Those voters did have their registrations put on hold, but they weren't purged from the rolls and were, in fact, allowed to vote. Jennifer Mercieca, an expert on political rhetoric at Texas A&M, thinks loaded terms like fraud and purge are encouraged by the growing use of social media in political debate.

JENNIFER MERCIECA: The way that you get rewarded in that system is by expressing these really polemical, emotional things.

FESSLER: She says the danger is that it can be exploited by those who want to further divisions, like Russian trolls who tried to sow discord in recent U.S. elections by echoing talking points about widespread voter fraud and suppression. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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