David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

A Logical Take

False Equivalence: Election Unrest in 2020 vs. 2016

Claims of voter fraud are not the same as claims of election interference

Posted Nov 17, 2020

The logical fallacy of false equivalence occurs when one compares two items or ideas and concludes they are equal when, in fact, they only share partial (or vague) similarities and as a whole are vastly different. What has that to do with the 2016 and 2020 elections? While the elections themselves obviously had a different result, some are claiming that the reactions of the losing side to these elections are essentially the same: Denial. Upon examination, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. 

On Saturday, November 7th, every major media outlet projected that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. As of now, it looks like Biden won the popular vote by about 4 percent (6 million votes), and the electoral college by 74 electoral votes (306 to 232) by taking about 81,000 more votes than Trump in four key swing states. Traditionally, in the modern era, with the exception of the 2000 election (which was decided by about 500 votes in Florida), losing candidates concede within 24 hours of the media projections being made. 

Despite this, the current president has challenged the results of the election and refused to concede, alleging that there was massive voter fraud and that he actually won. To be fair, there are two examples of Republicans (one in Luzerne and another in Chester County, PA) who tried to illegally vote for their relatives; but they were caught. Indeed, according to the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and The Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees, the 2020 election was: “The most secure in American history...There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Even right-leaning outlets, like Forbes, have debunked claims to the contrary. And Attorney General Barr’s own team, after his historically unusual move of authorizing his office to look into voter fraud, a move that caused the head of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch to resign and promoted a condemning letter from 23 State Attorneys General, said that they were unable to find any. 

As alarming as this denial of defeat is to some, others have claimed that it is no different than the Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s victory in 2016, when they claimed that Russia had “hacked” the election. Indeed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recently said, from the Senate floor, “Let’s not have any lectures, no lectures, about how the president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spend four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election.” And that brings us back to the fallacy of false equivalence. In reality, these two claims—that “Russia hacked the 2016 election” and that “there was voter fraud in the 2020 election”—are almost nothing alike. Why?

First, the claims are different. Although the use of the word “hacked” in 2016 might make one think that people were claiming Russia hacked voting machines and changed vote counts, that is not a claim that anyone made. Instead, the claim was that the Russians had hacked the Clinton campaign and the DNC servers, and “hacked the electorate” by using social media to target key swing states with misinformation (e.g., fake news stories) to change the way their citizens would vote. And while some claimed that they did so with help from the Trump campaign itself, the suggestion that the integrity of the vote count itself had been compromised, and thus that Hilary Clinton had actually won, was never widely made. Indeed, Hilary Clinton conceded the day after the 2016 election, and President Obama hosted Trump at the White House the day after that.

Second, unlike with the current 2020 claims of voter fraud, there actually was good evidence at the time that Russia indeed had hacked the Clinton campaign and DNC. There was also good evidence that the Russians had used social media to sway voters in critical swing states, and even that they had help. The president himself had asked the Russians to interfere in the election live on television, held a meeting with them, and spread the misinformation that was being created by Russian bots and trolls (like those belonging to the IRA) in plain sight on social media (see page 33 of The Mueller Report).

And third, instead of them being thrown out of court, the claims of Democrats after the 2016 election were vindicated by multiple bi-partisan, independent, and expert investigations. By January 6, 2017 (before the inauguration) the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the F.B.I., and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had all already concluded that Russia interfered in the election. After that, their conclusion was confirmed by multiple other intelligence agencies (eight total), including the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee which even admitted (along with the rest) that the Russians had regular contact with the Trump campaign while they interfered. (For example, campaign manager Paul Manafort shared polling data with Russian operative Konstantin Kilimnik). There is even an HBO documentary, “Agents of Chaos,” that explains how they did it. Allegations of voter fraud in 2020—like allegations about two backdated ballots in Pennsylvania, which were later recanted (in an affidavit and on audio) by the postal worker who made them—pale in comparison. 

To put it simply, people saying “Trump is not MY president” is in a totally different category than people saying “Biden is not THE president.” Although there were questions raised about the 2016 election, the claim was different, the evidence was good, and the investigations were vindicating. None of this is true of the claims being made about the 2020 election. Thus comparing the reactions in 2016 to those in 2020 commits the fallacy of false equivalence. This shouldn't be too surprising, however. Misinforming voters is easy; that's almost what social media was designed to do. Voter fraud is near impossible; that's what our entire election system is designed to prevent. 

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson