What does a teacher or discussion leader say when, in the heat of a hotly contested election, some students or community members reveal their fears that large groups of unqualified and ill-intentioned people (often illegal immigrants) are trying to steal an election by voting illegally?
This is troublesome because the charge is not true and grows out of racist fear of the perceived essential difference of Black and Brown people who are immigrants. I’ll talk more on this in a minute.
When students raise the issue, you could ask, “Does anyone know the data on how many people actually vote illegally?”
A simple google search that turns up an article by Max Feldman of the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, from New York University Law School. It is entitled, “10 Voter Fraud Lies Debunked.” Feldman cites a 2016 study, after the election, that found “noncitizen votes accounted for no more than 0.0001 percent of the 2016 votes” in the 42 jurisdictions studied that included 23.5 million votes (2020). More recently, authorities have not found any evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas, despite the notorious charge by Attorney General William Barr that someone was arrested for making out 1700 ballots for his choice candidate. “Prosecutors brought no such indictment,” according to the Washington Post (Zapotsky, 2020). These reports and more, which students can find with a quick search on their phones, indicate there has been very little voter fraud committed by noncitizens.
One thing to note: Students may have other examples culled from less reliable sources than the Brennan Center. Another google search on “critical literacy” brings up a variety of lessons and question lists to help them sort out the less trustworthy sources.
There are many forces that fight critical literacy, though. For example, after Trump’s 2016 election victory, he still insisted he would have won the popular vote if not for the millions of illegal votes by immigrants. He then set up the voter integrity commission, which was eventually disbanded and issued no report. Democrats explained there was virtually no evidence; Republicans insisted, without explanation, that they just could not obtain the needed evidence (Villenueve, 2018).
So, why didn’t the Republicans on the commission accept the data that showed that voter fraud is nearly nonexistent? One reason is that President Trump, the leader of their party, continues to insist that the myth of voter fraud is true, and to paint Brown and Black immigrants (not those from “Norway”) as a threat to our borders (Fram & Lemire, 2018). Most recently, at the Oct. 14, 2020, election town hall meeting, Trump repeated the myth by tying only an “honest election,” one that satisfied him as free from voter fraud, to his peaceful transfer of power. At this, the moderator “pointed out that the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, had said there was no sign of such widespread voter misconduct, [and] the president shot back, ‘Then he’s not doing a very good job.’” Again, the facts are rejected because they disprove the myth.
The deeper reality is that voter fraud touches on racist narratives in which White people have long been suspicious of immigrants, people of color, and others who are “different.“ In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, historian Ibram X. Kendi tells of the furor in the early 20th century around increased immigration., prompting an outcry for legislation: “Politicians seized on the powerful eugenicist demands for immigration restrictions on people from all countries outside of Nordic northwestern Europe.” President Coolidge “happily signed” the Immigration Act in 1924 out of his own anti-immigrant racism, writing earlier, “’Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.’” (Kendi, 2016, pp. 320-321)
Kendi uses this example and many more to argue that differences between races are not innate but a result of policy and the historical racist narrative to justify it, all created to maintain White supremacy even to this day. The persistent myth of voter fraud is an example of such racist narrative that disenfranchises people of color, including immigrants, through faulty, restrictive election policies, like literacy, English language, and voter ID requirements, as well as rules that limit absentee balloting.
Taking another tack, race and education scholar Jennifer Seibel Trainor describes the repeated training we receive in our early schooling that communicates cultural values—work hard, be fair, love your country, we are all equal, don’t take handouts, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and more. At times these lessons directly conflict with critical study of racial and economic discrimination, inequity and worse for people of color in the U.S. (Trainor, 2008) Trainor argues that it is important for teachers to help students investigate the myths that are holding their critical thinking hostage.
To help students or community members, you could also ask, Where does your reaction or belief come from? Even after seeing information that disproves their beliefs, students may need the opportunity to share the personal stories that undergird their belief that something nefarious is going on related to voter fraud. They may need the group’s help to weigh the individual story, often heard second-hand, with the data gathered from a much larger experience pool. At the end of the discussion, in the face of the data or information and others’ countervailing experiences, the student may be able to simply admit, “I didn’t know that.” That would be a worthwhile outcome of time spent investigating the myth of widespread voter fraud.
Feldman, M. (2020). 10 Voter Fraud Lies Debunked. 27 May. Retrieved from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/10-voter-fraud-lies-debunked
Fram, A., & Lemire, J. (2018, 12 January). Trump: Why Allow Immigrants from 'Shithole Countries"? AP News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/fdda2ff0b877416c8ae1c1a77a3cc425/Trump:-Why-allow-immigrants-from-%27shithole-countries%27
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.
Trainor, J. S. (2008). Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Villenueve, M. (2018, 3 Aug). Report: Trump Commission Did Not Find Widespread Voter Fraud. AP News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/f5f6a73b2af546ee97816bb35e82c18d
Zapotsky, M. (2020, 3 September). Barr Claims a Man Collected 1,700 Ballots and Filled Them Out As He Pleased. Prosecutors Say That's Not What Happened. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/barr-claims-a-man-collected-1700-ballots-and-filled-them-out-as-he-pleased-prosecutors-say-thats-not-what-happened/2020/09/03/923aafac-ee2e-11ea-ab4e-581edb849379_story.html
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.com