False Equivalence: Election Unrest in 2020 vs. 2016

Claims of voter fraud are not the same as claims of election interference. There is a huge difference between “not MY president” and “not THE president.”

As practically everyone in the world knows by now, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. Biden won the popular vote by about 4% (6 million votes), and the electoral college by 74 electoral votes (306 to 232). 

Now, while it is true that the difference between a Biden electoral win and loss is only about 81,000 votes in four key swing states, it’s also true that (a) that margin for Biden is actually larger than it was for Trump in 2016 (who then won thanks to only 77,000 votes in three key swing states), and (b) it’s practically impossible that any kind of recount or corrected irregularity would make the overall result of the election different. For example, Biden’s narrowest victory in any state is by 10,000, and recounts only change the vote count by a few hundred votes.

But you would also have to be living under a rock to not know that Trump has challenged the results of the election, and refused to concede, alleging that there was massive voter fraud and thus that he actually won. This, of course, is absolutely and demonstrably false; except for a couple of examples of republicans (one in Luzerne and another in Chester county) who got busted trying to vote for relatives (one of them dead), there are absolutely no credible, confirmed, or verified cases of voter fraud in 2020. Trump’s claims to the contrary– that there were no poll watchers or observers in key places, that the Dominion software changed votes, that votes for him were thrown out, that dead people voted, that ballots were backdated in Pennsylvania, that “SharpieGate” nonsense in Arizona, and more — have all been debunked. Trump’s legal team has all but lost every court cases they have filed on such issues, and his legal challenge ground to a halt as his previously loyal legal team subsequently abandoned the effort.  Trump’s own officials (The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Election infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, within the department of of Homeland Security) have declared the 2020 election to be “the most secure in US history,” and even after Attorney General Barr took the unprecedented move to encourage his office to look into election fraud (usually the office stays out of election matters), his own agents declared that they were unable to find any.  

But this hasn’t stopped his supporters, including some leaders of the republican party, locked inside a conservative media bubble (perpetuated by Newsmax, OAN, and Parler) from parroting Trump’s “voter fraud” claims. For most outside that bubble, this is just an act of sad desperation, a kind of poor sportsmanship—like claiming the other team cheated when you lost the big game. But according to some (which I and perhaps you have seen on social media), this is nothing new; it’s just like what the democrats did, after Trump’s 2016 victory, when they claimed that Russia had “hacked” the election. Indeed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel recently said, from the Senate floor, “Let’s not have any lectures, no lectures, about how the president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spend four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election.” 

But that brings us to the point of this short logic article: the fallacy of false equivalence. The fallacy of false equivalence occurs when one draws a conclusion by equating two things, usually because they share one or two things in common, when in fact they are drastically different. In reality, these two claims—that “Russia hacked the 2016 election” and that “there was voter fraud in the 2020 election”—are almost nothing alike.

First, although the use of the word “hacked” in 2016 might make one think that people were claiming Russia hacked voting machines and changed vote counts, that is not a claim that anyone made. Instead, the claim was that the Russians had hacked the Clinton campaign and the DNC and “hacked the electorate” by using social media to target key swing states with misinformation (e.g., fake news stories) to change the way their citizens would vote. The suggestion that the integrity of the vote count itself had been compromised, and thus that Hilary Clinton had actually won, was never widely made. Indeed, Hilary Clinton conceded the day after the 2016 election, and President Obama had Trump to the White House the day after that.

Second, unlike with Trump’s 2020 claims of voter fraud (which we saw above lack any evidence), there actually was good evidence at the time that Russia indeed had hacked the Clinton campaign and DNC and that they had used social media to spread misinformation to swing votes in critical swing states—and that they had done so with Trump’s help. After all, Trump himself had asked the Russians to interfere in the election live on television, had held a meeting in Trump Tower with them, and retweeted and otherwise spread the misinformation that was being created by Russian bots and trolls (like those belonging to the IRA) in plain sight on social media, for everyone to see (see page 33 of the Muller report).

And third, unlike the 2020 claims of Trump and his supporters who (as we saw above) have had every claim of voter fraud thrown out of court because they lack evidence, the claims of Democrats after the 2016 election were vindicated by multiple bi-partisan, independent, and expert investigations. By Jan 2017, before Trump’s inauguration, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the F.B.I., and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had all already concluded that Russia interfered in the election. After that, their conclusion was confirmed by multiple other intelligence agencies (8 total), including the republican lead Senate intelligence committee which even admitted (along with the rest) that the Russians had regular contact with the Trump campaign while they interfered. (For example, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort shared polling data with Russian operative Konstantin Kilimnik). There is even and HBO documentary that explains how they did it! 

Compare this to the claim of backdated ballots in PA, where a postal worker made but then recanted his claim that (a grand total of two) ballots were backdated so they could be counted; yes, he later denied that he recanted, but then only a day later an audio recording proved that he did indeed recant his false allegation. This was supposed to be one of the most damning pieces of evidence of 2020 voter fraud, and not only did it turn out to be false, but even if it were true—when compared to the evidence regarding the 2016 Russian interference—it wouldn’t even be in the same ballpark.

So yes, there were questions raised in 2016 about how fair the election was; when one side seeks and gets help from a hostile foreign power, that doesn’t seem fair. But in terms of how much evidence there was for such a claim, and in terms of the claim itself, it was nothing like the claims of voter fraud that are now being made in 2020. Such caparisons are a complete false equivalence. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. Misinforming voters is easy; that’s almost what social media was designed for. Voter fraud is near impossible; that’s what our entire election system is designed to prevent. 

Or, to put it simply, people saying “Trump is not my president” is in a totally different category than people saying “Biden is not THE president.” The claims being made in the wake of the two elections are not equivalent. And some would argue that, as a new kind of birtherism, that seeks to delegitimize a duly elected president, claiming that the person who won the election didn’t, is an attack on democracy itself.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson

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