Fact-Checkers Give Stacey Abrams a Pass on Victory Claim

Fact-Checkers Give Stacey Abrams a Pass on Victory Claim
Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Fact-Checkers Give Stacey Abrams a Pass on Victory Claim
Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Ever since she narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race six months ago, Stacey Abrams has been claiming that she “won” the election. Most recently, on April 28 she told The New York Times Magazine, “I cannot say that everybody who tried to cast a ballot would’ve voted for me, but if you look at the totality of the information, it is sufficient to demonstrate that so many people were disenfranchised and disengaged by the very act of the person who won the election that I feel comfortable now saying, ‘I won.'"

This absurd declaration is predicated on a cascading series of misleading statements Abrams is making about voter disenfranchisement. A May 15 New York Times op-ed by Abrams, headlined, “We Cannot Resign Ourselves to Dismay and Disenfranchisement,” details more of these disputable and tendentious claims.

This kind of thing began even before the campaign had ended. As if to inoculate herself, Abrams accused her opponent, Brian Kemp, of fostering an “atmosphere of fear” during a debate two weeks before Election Day. Georgia voters, she proclaimed, “have been purged, they have been suppressed, they have been scared.”

With all the attention Abrams is getting as a rising Democratic Party star and a rumored contender for the party’s 2020 vice presidential slot, one would think that her eyebrow-raising claims about the Georgia election would be getting more scrutiny. Specifically, there is a special kind of journalist that exists solely to verify the factual statements made by politicians.

Incredibly, however, not a single major media fact checker has taken Abrams to task for asserting that she “won” the election, a claim that rests on various empirical assumptions. PolitiFact hasn’t done it. FactCheck.org hasn’t done it. Snopes? Nope. The paper of record hasn’t gone on record here. Somewhat to its credit, the Washington Post did fact-check some tangentially related falsehoods about voter suppression in Georgia when Hillary Clinton tried to claim she lost 2016 for unfair reasons. But Abrams herself has never been questioned.

Let’s start with her most basic declaration. She did, in fact, lose the election by 50,000 votes. Although that’s a close margin in an election where millions of votes were cast, it’s not close enough to seriously dispute who the victor was. So the first response would be that Abrams’ claim that she “won” the election is rhetorical.

When pressed by the New York Times Magazine, Abrams makes some concessions. “I have no empirical evidence that I would have achieved a higher number of votes. However, I have sufficient, and I think legally sufficient, doubt about the process to say that it was not a fair election,” she said. She also tries to move “I won” in this context to the realm of the entirely metaphorical. "My larger point is, look, I won because we transformed the electorate, we turned out people who had never voted, we outmatched every Democrat in Georgia history,” she adds.

One might say that taking this literally when Abrams is framing her claim with such caveats doesn’t merit a fact check. Yet, this hasn’t always stopped fact checkers from being hyper-literal to the point of absolute obtuseness — so long as the headline is bad for the kind of politicians fact checkers don’t like.

To give one example, PolitiFact once declared Sen. Rand Paul “FALSE” for saying “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.” Paul’s figures were not only basically correct, he slightly understated the actual dollar amounts. PolitiFact’s reasoning was that because Paul used the more colloquial verb “makes” and didn’t specify the figures were for total compensation rather than just salary, he was being misleading. Which is ridiculous, given that the average taxpayer is unlikely to be more sympathetic once they learned federal employees merely earned an additional $30,000 a year in salary on average and the rest of the disparity is because federal workers get a benefits package worth four times the private sector average.

It’s safe to say in its unnecessary degree of literalism, PolitiFact was more misleading than Paul. Evaluating Stacey Abrams’ comments, there’s far better case to be made that her repeatedly claiming she “won” the election — especially when she herself concedes when challenged that “I have no empirical evidence that I would have achieved a higher number of votes” — is misleading, and perhaps willfully so. 

And if we want to talk about literalism versus context, it might be said no politician has brought out fact checkers’ overwrought literalism more than Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s ongoing analysis claims, as of this writing, “In 828 days, President Trump has made 10,111  false or misleading claims” and The New York Times has published similarly eye-popping tallies. While it’s difficult to defend Trump’s relationship with the facts, to claim he has lied that often you have to be tone-deaf to nuance and context to the point of absurdity.

For instance, according to the Post, this is one of Trump’s lies: “It was found that I had more Indian blood in me than [Elizabeth Warren] did. And then it was determined that I had none.” Most reasonable people would read this and understand that Trump, famous for taunting adversaries, is employing hyperbole to roast Sen. Warren over her claims that she was Native American — claims she apparently used to advance her career in academia — when it turns out that Warren, by her own admission, may be as little as 1/1024th Native American. The Post is recasting an obvious joke — how, exactly, does one have less than no Indian blood? — into a misleading statement.

Drill down into Trump fact checks and you find a lot more of this. Reporters are tired of hearing the cliché about Trump, but this kind of thing is perfectly illustrative of taking him literally and not seriously. If we apply these standards of literalism evenly, Abrams is more than due for a fact check, regardless of any rhetorical throat clearing that follows the claim she “won.”

Fine, let’s have a go at the broader context and assume Abrams is saying “I won” based on the belief that the process was unfair and that there was voter suppression. In her “non-concession speech” last fall, Abrams claimed, “Despite a record high population in Georgia, more than a million citizens found their names stripped from the rolls by the secretary of state.” Adding to the suspicion is the fact that the secretary of state who did this is Brian Kemp, her opponent in the election. It is indeed true that Kemp’s office purged 1.4 million voter registrations in Georgia since 2010.

But it is misleading to suggest that by removing voters from the rolls Kemp was doing anything suspect. Secretaries of state are required by law to purge voter registrations. “The 1993 National Voter Registration Act mandates that state and local elections officers keep voter registration lists accurate by removing the names of people who die, move or fail in successive elections to vote. Voters who’ve been convicted of a felony, ruled mentally incompetent or found to be noncitizens also can be removed,” notes a joint Carnegie-Knight News21 report on the Center for Public Integrity’s website. “The U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that 15 million names were scrubbed from the lists nationally in 2014.”

So, the purging of voter rolls in Georgia was not abnormal, and in fact, is required by federal law. Nonetheless, in her recent New York Times op-ed Abrams again makes the unsupported claim that this is being done for suspect purposes. “Across the country, voter purges employ an easily manipulated ‘use it or lose it’ rule, under which eligible voters who exercised their First Amendment right to abstain from voting in prior elections can be booted off the rolls,” she writes.

Yet there’s no real reason to believe that this rule is being “manipulated.” According to the same Carnegie-Knight News21 report, “News21 analyzed lists of nearly 50 million registered voters from a dozen states, and 7 million more who were removed over the last year. By comparing voter registration and purge lists against U.S. Census data, News21 found no national or statewide pattern of discrimination against voters based on race, ethnicity, poverty, age or surname.”

Despite various highly selective, deliberately chosen data points that have been thrown around by Abrams and her supporters, there’s no good reason to believe that any major voter suppression efforts occurred in Georgia. Quite the opposite.

"If Georgia’s Brian Kemp is a vote suppressor, he’s the least successful vote suppressor alive. Turnout in Georgia was immense. In the previous gubernatorial election, Republican Nathan Deal won with 1.3 million votes. In November, Abrams lost with 1.9 million votes,” observes National Review’s David French. “There were roughly 2.5 million total votes cast in 2014. In 2018, more than 3.9 million Georgians voted. That almost matches the total votes cast for president in 2016."

Moreover, in Kemp’s eight-year tenure as secretary of state, African-American voter registration has surged, increasing by 31 percent — this translates into 462,000 new voters, which is a higher total than for whites. And though the Atlanta Constitution, Georgia’s dominant newspaper, has parroted the Democrats’ claims, when it came time to actually find some of these voters who had been “suppressed” and “scared,” it ran into a bit of a problem. The voters purged from the rolls were either dead, no longer living in Georgia, or apathetic.

“The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tried last week to get in touch with 50 people randomly chosen from the list of 2017’s purged voters,” the paper reported. “Twenty clearly would be ineligible to vote in Georgia: 17 moved out of state, two were convicted of felonies and one had died. Most of the rest left a trail of address changes and disconnected telephone numbers.”

Suffice it to say, it would be an unnecessary errand at this point to revisit what fact checkers said about Trump’s claims of voter fraud in 2016, much less revisit the general media opprobrium when he said he wouldn’t automatically accept the results of the 2016 election.

Yet, here we are in 2019 and The New York Times is running headlines such as, “Why Stacey Abrams is still saying she won” and letting her mislead readers on the op-ed page, and the media fact checkers are missing in action. Somebody should give Abrams a towering trouser inferno and ladle on some Pinocchios. She’s earned it.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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