Great Antidote Deep Dive: Walter Olson on Election Fraud

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Juliette Sellgren and Walter Olson

The peaceful transfer of governmental power is an important American tradition. Real and imagined threats to that idea put Americans in danger. 
In this episode of The Great Antidote, guest Walter Olson and host Juliette Sellgren discuss the 2020 US presidential election and voter fraud. What is election fraud? How is it different from voter suppression? How often do these things happen and in what sorts of circumstances? 

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies and an expert on regulation and legislation. 

Both Republicans and Democrats politicians and partisans have screamed “voter fraud” and “voter suppression” at different times during the 2020 election and in recent, previous elections. States that get special mentions are North Carolina, Colorado, Wisconsin, Arizona, California, Georgia, Pennsylvania. 

Questions that Olson and Sellgren discuss are: 

What is the difference between voter irregularity and voter fraud? 
In some states it’s illegal to mail someone else’s ballot; in other’s it’s not. If you live in two states and choose where to vote based on which election is more competitive, that’s irregular but not illegal. Voter fraud involves people who are not qualified to vote, people who have misrepresented things.

What are some of the changes that have occurred? 
Historical incidents of voter intimidation and violence and stuffed ballot boxes make everyone nervous but changes in the law and importantly changes in the enforcement of laws that were already on the books have resulted in much better and safer elections than in the past.. For example, it has never been legal to beat someone up because you didn’t like the way they were going to vote. This used to happen more in the past. 
20th century voting machines, better election auditing, litigation fears, all have improved the process. Irregularities are noticed, addressed, and corrected quickly. Stealing a small number of votes is always going to be possible but stealing enough votes to change the results of an election involves subverting continually improving machine systems or large conspiracies of people that are likely to break down. But there are still lots of claims and anxieties surrounding these issues. 

What are some of the things contributing to these misunderstanding or conspiracy theories? 
One of Olson’s suggestions is that many journalists are not doing the work of understanding the long histories on election issues. For example, limiting early voters could be about suppressing voting but it also might be the result of real concerns about voters who have regretted early votes due to late breaking news about their candidates and a candidate dropping out. 
Another tough issue is California’s very permissive laws about ballot harvesting. In some cases, union leaders or political party members were collecting hundreds of absentee ballots. There must be a balance between the ideal of “You alone with your conscience in the voting booth” and allowing friends and family members to help those who need assistance. California may have gone too far without good restrictions to prevent intimidation or mischief. 

Juliette brings up 3 major, recent examples and Olson dives in. 
  • Claims in 2016 that Russians aided Trump
  • Claims in 2018 that voter suppression costs Stacy Abrams her seat
  • Claims in 2020 that the election was stolen from Trump. 

Olson reminds listeners that when people consider the government as illegitimate, it leads to riots and other kinds of civil disorder. He hopes listeners remember that “We’re all Americans and there are wider things that unite us.” He recalls who Richard Nixon conceded to John F. Kennedy and Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush. The peaceful transfer of presidential power is an important tradition and to damage that idea puts all Americans in danger. 

Key Quote
“The urge to win the short-term battle against someone in an election begins to seem bigger than the things we have in common.”

His advice for young people? Got to the party even if you aren’t sure you want to (HT: Megan McArdle)

Something he’s changed his mind on? “I used to write more “slash and burn” pieces but as I’ve gotten older, I value kindness more. Hurtful, clever, entertaining pieces leave someone who remains hurt after the cleverness and entertainment are forgotten.” 

Listen to this episode

The guest
Professional Profile, Wikipedia profile
Tweets at @walterolson
Blogged at from 1999-2020

Relevant recent writings by Olson 
My Year's Worth of Election Law Writing, at the Cato Institute blog

Other Liberty Fund related content
People mentioned in this podcast

Mentioned in the podcast 
Erin Blakemore’s National Geographic article, “Voter fraud used to be rampant. Now it’s an anomaly.