Exile on Jones Street: Bad math and dangerous rhetoric

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by Kirk Ross

One of the hardest things to discern in the new, reality-optional political universe is whether someone is saying something outlandish because it serves their needs or simply because they are too foolish to understand what they’re talking about.

In the case of the recent charges of massive voter fraud in North Carolina, it just could be one of those rare moments when it’s both.

The charges came out of a meeting last month of the General Assembly’s Elections Oversight Committee, the source of most legislation on elections and voting including last year’s Voter Information Verification Act, the sweeping and controversial voting and election law omnibus, now under challenge by the Department of Justice.

As part of a mandated review of the implementation of VIVA, the committee had assembled to hear from state elections officials about updates to the voter rolls. Deep into the meeting, state Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach walked the legislators through the results of an interstate crosscheck of voter rolls coordinated between 28 states. The presentation included three bullet points detailing combinations of information matches between people who voted in North Carolina and another state in the 2012 presidential election. The last bullet point, which showed that 155,692 were registered in NC and another state in 2012, is kind of an obvious reminder that a lot of people don’t cancel their state registration when they move. But on the surface, the first two points looked pretty damning.

• “765 voters exact match of first and last name DOB and last four SSN — registered in NC and another state and voted in 2012 general election.

• “35,750 voters with first and last name and DOB match that are registered in NC and another state and voted in both in 2012 general elections.”

Well choreographed outrage soon followed.

Strach had barely finished the presentation and was still taking questions when House and Senate leaders issued a joint statement decrying the “newly discovered alarming evidence of voter error and fraud.”

In the committee room several Republican members lit up. They’d found their massive fraud. Sen. Thom Goolsby (R-New Hanover) called for immediate referrals to local district attorneys about the “felonies.” Channeling Sam Ervin, Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said that in his experience as a small-town lawyer, when a person’s name and birthdate match “it’s the same person.”

Like his colleagues he said last year’s voting legislation, famously noted in the New York Times and elsewhere as the most extensive voter-suppression laws in the country, was entirely necessary.

The right-wing echo chambers have since had a grand old time and, yes, if the findings were even remotely true it would go a long way toward proving their case.

Except they’re not.

What happened was a dangerous mix of political hyperbole and really bad math skills. In state after state, the follow-up of these crosschecks, started by Kansas Secretary of State and conservative firebrand Kris Korbach, have yielded a tiny number of actual cases of fraud. There are flaws in both the data collection in the states and way information is “matched.”

Here are some other bullet points to consider:

• According to Board of Elections officials the “exact matches” do not include middle initials or Jr. and Sr. It is only first and last name, which means James A. Smith and James B. Smith — Junior and Senior — would all match on the list.

• Fifty-eight of 100 counties in North Carolina rely on paper voter rolls and enter information on voting manually, increasing the chance of human error.

• Until about 20 years ago North Carolina didn’t require date of birth on voter registrations, setting a default date of 01/01/1900. There are roughly 11,000 North Carolinians with the default date birthday on their registrations.

• North Carolina shares that default date with several other states.

• Nothing in VIVA would prevent the kind of fraud alleged.

I’ll spare you the very interesting world of birthday probabilities, the reuse of social-security numbers and mathematical probabilities for matching the last four digits and so on. All together, they further blow  apart the charges of widespread fraud. There may be actual voting fraud somewhere at some time in this state, but it’s a needle in a haystack and these probably aren’t even the right haystacks.

Given the coordination and the timeliness of the reaction, it’s hard not to see this incident as a set up to bolster a political position.

At some point, Strach, an appointee of the governor, may issue a clarification on the numbers and, as her counterparts have done in other states, reveal the errors in the crosscheck. But until then, there are people quite willing to believe the charges and run with it. They include General Assembly members who are just waiting for an excuse to further tighten the laws and voter-intimidation organizations ready to step up their game.