It’s All About Incentives

VOTER FRAUD CONUNDRUM-Economics is all about incentives. Consider how economists talk about unemployment compensation. They worry that if the payments are too generous, people will choose unemployment rather than working. 

Indeed, capitalism itself is based upon the idea that if you give people the opportunity to earn more if they work harder, you will encourage higher productivity. In general, this theory seems to hold up.

This way of thinking has been highly influential. Consider sin taxes. We have decided that stopping smoking, especially among young people, is a worthy goal. How do we accomplish that? By making it really expensive with high taxes. 

The same idea is driving the argument in favor of a carbon tax, something that economists of all political stripes tend to favor as a way of reducing global warming. 

Or how about congestion pricing? That is where you make people pay more for something when it is in higher demand. New York is looking at this approach to address subway overcrowding, and I was just the other day talking with a friend about how parking lots charge more on nights with hockey games.

Their central organizing principle is lowering taxes, because if you allow people to keep more of their money, they will be more productive, which is good for everyone. That’s what the Laffer curve was all about. 

We’ve been hearing for some time from conservatives and Donald Trump in particular that voter fraud is rampant. This claim becomes the basis for arguments in favor of laws to make voting harder: voter ID laws, laws requiring a street address (Hello, ND), etc…. But research has repeatedly shown that such claims of widespread illegal voting are without basis. In reality, these laws are probably aimed at reducing turnout among younger and minority voters who, not coincidentally, tend to vote Democratic. 

On the other hand, we have an example of clear electoral fraud in North Carolina. The fraud was so blatant that the candidate himself admitted to it in a hearing. An elections commission voted unanimously — both Democrats and Republicans — to hold a new election. To be clear, this almost never happens. The fraud was indisputable and materially affected the election results. The perpetrator of this fraud was a Republican who narrowly defeated a Democrat in the last election. Again, not terribly surprisingly, those Republicans who are loudest in their claims of voter fraud have been notably silent regarding this fraud. 

Here’s what happened. In the 2018 midterm election, Republican Mark Harris was facing off against Democrat Dan McCready. Given the difficult political environment Republicans were facing nationwide, and particularly in districts like North Carolina’s 9th CD, both parties expected a close race. Harris apparently hired a local political consultant called Leslie McCrae Dowless who had a reputation for winning close races. 

In North Carolina, as in most states, it is OK to help a voter apply to get an absentee ballot. However, it is illegal to assist the voter in filling out the absentee ballot itself, or to collect the ballots for mailing. That is exactly what Dowless did. Indeed, it appears that he not only went around collecting voters’ absentee ballots but changed some and/or threw out some ballots supporting the Democrat. The result was a 905-vote win for the Republican, one of the closest in the country, and certainly close enough that it could have been impacted by the absentee ballot scam. 

In testimony before the board of elections, Harris’s son, a 29-year old Assistant U.S. Attorney, revealed that he had warned his father against hiring Dowless fearing that the consultant’s activities were illegal. Ultimately, the evidence was simply too damning, and Harris tearfully asked the election board to call a new election. 

An economist would ask about the incentives. Harris’s incentives are clear. He wanted to win his election. He had narrowly lost a Congressional primary in 2016 where his opponent was assisted by Dowless. He thought that hiring Dowless would turn things around — as well it did. Dowless did it for money. The incentives are clear here. Everyone involved had a strong motivation to disregard the laws. 

Furthermore, elections are almost never thrown out. In fact, it is believed that this is the first time in our nation’s history that an election will be held again due to fraud. Furthermore, Dowless had been working in this region for years and nobody who hired him had faced consequences. As a result, it is easy to see where Harris would have made the decision that the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. 

On the other hand, consider the voter who allegedly votes despite not being authorized to. They would face considerable legal problems if they were caught. So to engage in such fraud, they would really have to get some serious benefit. 

Here’s where the logic falls apart. Just what is the benefit for that fraudulent voter? What would be sufficient to motivate them to risk a felony conviction by voting illegally? 

In truth, it’s hard to get people to vote. Consider turnout among young people — that being voters aged between 18 and 30. In the 2018 midterm, considered by many the high water mark for young voter turnout, 31% of the eligible voters cast a ballot. That means that nearly 7 out of 10 eligible voters didn’t bother to vote. Indeed, in even in the 2016 Presidential election, only about half the eligible voters under 30 showed up. Thus, it appears that the motivation to vote is weak at best. 

An economist would view this information as indicating that the risks are high for someone to vote illegally and the benefits are marginal at best. As a result, the incentives skew against voting illegally, not the other way around and Trump and his minions repeatedly claim. 

Analysis should be done based upon sound reasoning, not biased preconceptions. Effective argument should come to conclusions based upon the facts, it shouldn’t come up with facts to support desired conclusions. The Republicans want to reduce Democratic turnout, so they claim there is rampant voter fraud. But in fact, when you think about it as an economist would, people would be crazy to vote illegally, while candidates will have strong motivation to tilt the results their way. And in fact, that’s what the data show.


(Michael Greiner, a Medium member since July 2018, is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.