We now have tools that let us look back at how words and concepts have been used over time. These tools reveal how:
- "voter fraud" is an entirely new concept
- people's use of "voter fraud" is unlike how they use other similar concepts
- "voter fraud" as a concept distracts from the idea of "electoral fraud"
The "marketplace of ideas" is a frequently-used metaphor that suggests that the "best" ideas survive on their own merit. But if the very existence of the idea of "voter fraud" is entirely due to marketing and spin doctoring then we, and especially the media, need to be very careful in our use of it. It also means we need to be highly skeptical about attempts by legislators to prevent "voter fraud" through the passage of voter ID laws. So, let's look at the evidence.
The charts we present below were compiled using "Google n-grams" (http://books.google.com/ngrams/). They plot the relative frequency of the use of particular phrases over time in books, magazines, and news articles. We can see, e.g., how the "Great War" became "World War I" as World War Two progressed:
We might wonder, then, how "normal" concepts vary over time. For instance, let's look at the
concept of "electoral fraud":
We can observe a few things:
- People's use of the term "electoral fraud" peaked slightly just after the Voting Rights Act was passed nationally. There was another peak in usage around the mid-
- We see that there is some variability in its use: some years it goes up, some years it goes down. This variability is typical to how normal concepts behave.
Let's compare "electoral fraud" to "election fraud":
Here again, we can make a couple observations:
- "electoral fraud" and "election fraud" have almost identical relative usage frequency until 1960 or so, when "electoral fraud" splits off.
- Nonetheless, they aren't that different in relative use. At most, "electoral fraud" is used twice as much a "election fraud". Since the word "election" is used 4000x more often than "election fraud", a difference of only 2x is actually fairly small
- "election fraud" and "electoral fraud" are correlated: for the most part, when people use more of one, they use more of the other.
This makes sense, since when people are talking about the first they might use the second (and vice versa). The idea that concepts should be roughly correlated in their usage is supported by our adding the term "vote fraud":
- "vote fraud" varies naturally, and looks a lot like "election fraud"
- "vote fraud" is relatively pretty well correlated to "election fraud" and even, to a lesser degree, with "electoral fraud"
So, what happens if we throw "voter fraud" into the mix? (note the colors change, "electoral fraud" has been removed to make it easier to see the others)
Whoa. "voter fraud" (in green) behaves nothing like either "election fraud" or "voting fraud":
- even though, at first it was used more rarely than either of the other two phrases, it shows less variability,
- it didn't exist in popular usage until quite recently, and
- it doesn't seem to respond to usage trends the same way that "election fraud", "vote fraud", or "electoral fraud" do. In fact, it just rises slowly and steadily. Strange, no? I wonder when it actually got started?
Let's zoom in on that period around 1960:
That's right. "voter fraud" didn't exist at all until it was mentioned (somewhere) in the late 1950s. It really began to take off soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It then increased in usage 15,000% (150x) between 1965 and 2008, while "election fraud" increased 250% (2.5x) in the same period. Apparently, "voter fraud" didn't matter until you weren't allowed to disenfranchise minority voters. As of 2008, "voter fraud" has even surpassed the usage of the previously much more common "vote fraud".
If "voter fraud" had been trumpeted as a problem in the mid-1960s, the public would have immediately seen it for the sham that it was -- another attempt to disenfranchise poor voters by erecting another barrier to their participation in elections. Instead, by slowly and insidiously working "voter fraud" into our lexicon, it has managed to appear as though it's always been a problem which is only now getting out of hand (ACORN!).
The reality is that it never was a problem, but a deliberate effort by some has turned "voter fraud" into a household phrase. This little concept, so similar to "vote fraud", has become the justification for making it difficult for the "wrong kind" of people to cast a ballot. We need to be show "voter fraud" for the fraud that it itself is. To "vote early, and vote often" is to risk a felony conviction in order to have a negligible impact on an election. Mistakenly voting in the wrong district or accidentally adding yourself to the voter rolls does not count as "voter fraud". Because for it to be a fraud requires intent. And for any deliberate voter-based election fraud to have even a chance at being effective requires a large scale coordinated effort to get many people to vote when they know they are not allowed to.
But if it's coordination that's required, why not target that? If GOP legislators are so worried about "voter fraud", they should pass a law that rewards people for snitching on the required conspiracy, promising them immunity from prosecution. If multi-language reward notices were posted at polling places, there's no way it would be possible to pull off the conspiracy required to sway an election through "voter fraud". But, of course, the GOP isn't interested in taking any such approach. Indeed, the fact it's not under consideration reveals the real purpose behind their advocacy of voter ID laws. [Small edit for readability]