Federal prosecutors in the Trump administration spent four years investigating claims of widespread voting fraud in the state, but found nothing of the sort.
Last week, there was a major development in a high-profile political controversy that has roiled North Carolina for the better part of a decade. And unless you are a state political news junkie, chances are you heard nothing about it.
There were no press conferences, no major statements given by prominent leaders. The news, though incredibly significant, was almost immediately forgotten in the breathless 24-hour news cycle.
I’m talking, of course, about voter fraud—or more accurately, the lack of it in North Carolina.
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Federal prosecutors announced the end of a four-year investigation into longstanding Republican claims of voter fraud in North Carolina the other week. Their findings were significant—but not in the way they intended. After years of searching, including “dragnet-style” subpoenas of at least 44 counties and multiple state agencies, sophisticated data mining, invasive audits of state voter rolls, hundreds of hours of professional staff time and more, investigators were able to find almost no evidence of voter fraud at all.
To be precise, out of about 5 million votes cast and 7 million registered voters, investigators were able to charge a grand total of 41 people with some form of fraud.
In virtually all cases, they appeared to be simple human error: regular people, including legally documented residents with green cards, who simply did not know they were ineligible to vote. Despite their best efforts, investigators were completely unable to substantiate claims of “pervasive” or “systemic” fraud. North Carolina’s elections system worked almost perfectly in keeping ineligible voters from casting ballots.
The investigation was carried out almost exclusively by Republicans themselves. Former President Trump’s own appointed US attorneys in our state were its leaders. They were assisted during most of the investigation by Republican appointees at the State Board of Elections, including its director and general counsel. Yet despite all the years of claims about an epidemic of voter fraud, investigators were able to find essentially no evidence of it.
This development is a major embarrassment for Republicans, who for a decade have loudly spun colorful and outrageous yarns about “voter fraud.” Indeed, the existence of this investigation itself was a big victory for their leaders. Republicans promised shocking revelations and far-reaching conspiracies involving undocumented immigrants, criminals, and incompetent elections officials. After all, that has been the putative rationale behind Republicans’ aggressive push for voter ID and purging the voter rolls. (Why Republican leaders collected data on racial differences in voting behavior, and then designed ID requirements for maximum impact against people of color, readers may decide for themselves.)
At this stage, reasonable people may take a step back and wonder: What are we really doing here?
This investigation, and others like it, cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. There were meetings, travel, expenses, and large discretionary budgets, not to mention hundreds of hours of professional staff time. Let’s be clear: This investigation represented a major commitment of public money.
If, as Republicans insisted it would, the investigation had produced shocking revelations of an election system riven with fraud, that money might’ve been well-spent. Yet that is not what happened. Instead, the investigation produced the exact opposite: a complete collapse of the claims of rampant voter fraud. Its only revelation was that the emperor had no clothes.
Normally, when taxpayers foot the bill for a major state investment, they expect a proportionately large public benefit as a matter of course. Yet in this case, that is not what we received. Indeed, that money now appears to have been utterly wasted in a nakedly political fishing expedition that could not even cobble together the barest justification for its own existence. In this way, it is like other such high-profile investigations into voter fraud, like President Trump’s own 2017 voter integrity commission, which also quietly shut down in 2018 without finding any evidence of significant fraud.
Yet Republicans seem not to have paid this matter any mind. Instead, Republicans in Raleigh (and across the country) are charging ahead with new voter suppression measures based on the very myths their own investigation just disproved. Indeed, it’s almost as if “voter fraud” wasn’t really what they wanted to stop.
It is, perhaps, an old-fashioned view that public money should be spent in a manner that benefits the public, and not politicians’ posturing. But it is a point of view that North Carolina could benefit from embracing once again. It is one thing for right-wing politicians to tell tall tales to hoodwink voters. It is quite another for them to waste millions of our tax dollars trying to justify their lies and keep them repeated in the media. Politicians who would do so are no friend to the taxpayer, and North Carolinians deserve to know as much.
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