Are Americans Really That Dumb?

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather at an intersection to protest his potential arrest, in Warwick, Rhode Island, on March 21.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather at an intersection to protest his potential arrest, in Warwick, Rhode Island, on March 21.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather at an intersection to protest his potential arrest, in Warwick, Rhode Island, on March 21.

“I don’t need to do research, only need to see the obvious.”

So wrote a friend, one of several in a group text where we banter about politics. My friend is staunchly conservative and often makes unsubstantiated assertions.

His message reminded me of a campaign button I had purchased years ago as a kid. It was the only one I ever bought. I wish I still had it, but I’ve never forgotten it. The button, brown with white letters, read, “Question Authority.”

You’ll find that phrase now on not only buttons, but T-shirts, hats and various tchotchkes. It has been attributed to everyone, from founding father Benjamin Franklin to ’60s counterculture figure Timothy Leary to Greek philosopher Socrates. You’ll even find a recent novel, “The Question Authority,” about the decadeslong impact on several female characters who were victimized by their male teacher, a sexual predator.

Regardless of the phrase’s purported origins — which remain unsubstantiated, by the way — my childhood self was a defiantly independent little SOB, and the saying resonated with me.

It has served as a kind of North Star, albeit with caveats, as I eventually amended the phrase to where it has now stood for most of my life: Trust no one. Question everyone. Including yourself. Especially yourself.

I’ve always thought it wise to ask questions, seek answers and then seek them again, especially when wondering whether I might be wrong. Most would agree, I hope, that it takes a certain courage to admit when you’re wrong. But I would argue that it takes even greater courage to be willing to find out if you are.

I bring all this up as a prologue because I believe it to be at the heart of what’s dividing our nation. We seem to have retreated to corners that are not only ideologically defined, but also characterized by an intractable refusal to admit we might be wrong — or even worse, an unwillingness to find out.

Imagine if time travel were possible, and Jesus Christ himself came through a portal to announce: “You know, everything I peddled back then was just a bunch of BS. I was a lousy carpenter but a good bullshitter, so I made my living doing that. Don’t believe a word I ever said.”

It’s a silly flight of imagination, to be sure, but if such a thing happened, how would Christians react? They’d probably vilify him, call him the product of Satan and tell him to go back to making furniture.

Or imagine if he came through that time portal and told the right-wing Christian faithful: “You’re doing it wrong. You’re not following my teachings.” He might even feel that he’d have to start the whole damned thing over again. And it would be the Christians rather than the Romans wanting to nail him to a cross this time, at least figuratively.

So where am I going with all this? Let’s start with these three claims: 

  1. Former President Barack Obama is not a United States citizen.

  2. Survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, were crisis actors.

  3. COVID-19 vaccines were 98 times worse for people than the coronavirus itself.

Not one of those statements is true, of course, but imbecilic websites have repeated them regardless. And in keeping with the truism about a sucker being born every minute, some people still believe those claims.

If a website made those assertions — all of them demonstrably false — and continued to make untrue claims thereafter, why would anyone ever trust it again?

The Gateway Pundit is such a website, a far-right extremist waste of bandwidth that has spread those lies and other gibberish for the entirety of its existence. In 2022, it started writing about the the Electronic Registration Information Center, leading to results that threaten our democratic processes and show how gullible — or stupid, if you prefer — people can be.

ERIC is a nonpartisan organization comprising election officials from states that have opted into the voluntary partnership, which helps members maintain election integrity and prevent voter fraud. It’s not necessarily about intentional fraud, but inadvertent fraud — like someone who moved to a new state and registers to vote there without canceling a previous registration record elsewhere. Joining the ERIC collaborative helps states share information, correcting mistakes on voter lists when they occur.

ERIC’s origins can be traced to the 2000 presidential election, which was so chaotic that Congress required states to start keeping voter registration lists. But with their limited resources, state governments struggled to keep voter rolls current, let alone accurate.

Why? People move. On average, Americans move over 11 times during their lives, or approximately once every five years. And people die. Having worked at the U.S. Postal Service, I can tell you that letters regularly arrive at almost every post office addressed to people who either have died or no longer live at the intended address. (For what it’s worth, DMVs and hospital groups are often among the worst offenders, especially in states not part of the ERIC partnership.) The current resident typically returns the letter, catalog or magazine, writing on it “hasn’t lived here for six years” or “died 11 years ago.” It rarely matters if you return the mail to the sender. Eventually, another letter goes out, only to be returned once more.

The same happens with voter rolls, which makes life difficult for officials trying to track voters in their precincts based on wrong or outdated addresses. Inaccurate voter rolls have a downstream effect. Voter guides, registration information and mail-in ballots, all funded by taxpayers, can get sent to the wrong places. Voters end up standing in line at election time to verify their correct address. Provisional ballots become the fallback, delaying final election tallies.

ERIC cuts through that by pulling data from many government sources and cross-referencing it with each state’s voter rolls, with software sifting through it all to provide an updated list of registered voters. It proved accurate to the point of being able to tell if a John Doe in one state was the same John Doe in another.

Voting officials, in red and blue states alike, saw the value: The system cut down on voter fraud, which Republicans liked, but it also required states to reach out to eligible voters who hadn’t registered yet, which Democrats liked.

In its first year, 2013, with only seven states on board, ERIC correctly identified 92,000 voters who had moved to different states. Over time, more joined the partnership. By 2021, with 28 states and Washington, D.C., sharing data, that number of identified voters rose to almost 3.5 million.

The bottom line? ERIC has been a bipartisan success story in election administration, restoration and accuracy. It was lauded by officials in every state that joined the partnership — 32 at its peak, almost evenly divided between red and blue.

Then came the lies. The Gateway Pundit began posting articles that falsely described ERIC as “essentially a left wing voter registration drive” bankrolled by billionaire George Soros and aimed at getting Democrats to win elections.

The site had some help. Cleta Mitchell, a zealous adherent to the lies about a supposedly stolen 2020 election, began targeting ERIC on her voting podcast, “Who’s Counting.” She called it an “insidious organization.” This is the same woman who was on the phone call in January 2021 when then-President Donald Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him nearly 12,000 more votes.

An election denial infrastructure has since emerged, repeating lies about voting and ERIC while instructing people to pressure state lawmakers and election officials to end their partnerships. In just the space of a year, eight Republican-led states abruptly pulled out of ERIC.

They all listened to a lie, despite:

  • countless election experts, administrators and scholars — from across the country and from both parties — touting ERIC as a bipartisan institution that can catch and eliminate voter fraud, whether by ne’er-do-wells or outdated voter rolls.

  • high-ranking officials in those states (like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis) initially praising ERIC, or even calling it “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have.”

Why would Republicans, who have been screaming about voter fraud for years, try to dismantle perhaps the best mechanism we have to protect against it?

According to Charlotte Hill, the interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, the flip-flopping lawmakers typically cite two flimsy excuses for bailing on the partnership (with “typically” meaning they all seemed to get the same memo on how to explain their exit).

First is ERIC’s refusal to remove founder David Becker from its board of directors. The lawmakers apparently think he’s some sort of Democratic operative, despite a letter signed by two dozen current and former Republican state and local officials praising Becker’s long history of working with leaders in both parties to improve election integrity.

Second is ERIC’s requirement that all members conduct outreach to offer residents the chance to register if eligible. Well, of course! Many studies have shown that those most likely to register in voter outreach efforts are poor people, young adults and people of color. You guessed it: Those people are more likely to vote for Democrats. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has described the voter outreach requirement as “harassing people.” You guessed it again: Ashcroft is a Republican.

In all eight states, every lawmaker who flip-flopped and decided to exit the ERIC collective is either up for reelection in 2024 or positioning themselves to run for a higher office. (Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, for example, is posturing for a U.S. Senate run.)

How ironic is it that many of those “stop the steal” Republicans complaining about voter fraud (which is extremely rare) turn out to be the ones committingnearly all of the rampant fraudthen and since?

It’s as embarrassing an irony as pushing for policies in the name of election integrity that are actually hurting election integrity.

It’s no different from the people who call voting a civic responsibility and patriotic duty, yet take issue with registering Americans they loathe.

It’s no different from people screaming the loudest about the federal deficit — the very same people trying to defund the IRS, which is responsible for collecting the monies that fund the federal government and help pay off the country’s debt.

It’s no different from those who scream about freedom, yet are the ones using the government to curtail freedoms they don’t like.

It’s no different from the people who say they love America but refuse to acknowledge the entirety of its history, warts and all, and who trumpet their allegiance to the Bill of Rights but violate its tenets time and time again.

An NPR investigation into the ERIC story suggested that such an exodus can be seen as “a policy blueprint for an election denial movement” that would “change virtually every aspect of how Americans vote.” Abandoning a system that provides the comfort of accountability in the nation’s voting process is more than disturbing; it’s a terrifying threat to the very foundations of our democracy.

The question isn’t whether this is a frightening development. The question is something far more troubling and foreboding: Why? 

Why would anyone believe a website that has repeated debunked lies in the past and is now doing it again? Why would anyone think the 2020 election was stolen, let alone give credence to liars like Mitchell?

I’d hate to call these people stupid, but when somebody says, “I don’t need to do research,” I have to wonder why. Why don’t they feel the need to ask questions? Why do they refuse to examine any evidence? Are they really that damned dumb?

Or are they just terrified of the possibility that they might actually be wrong?

It is a sad and reprehensible political reality that the election officials in those eight states who flipped on ERIC did so because their prime directive is job security, so they bow to pressure from the constituents who determine their future employment.

The irony of leaving ERIC, and the tragedy, is that it will likely cause an increase in the kind of voter fraud that constituents believe ERIC is responsible for — and that ERIC would help prevent if those states remained in the partnership.

If voter fraud occurs in those states now, and voter rolls turn into a convoluted jumble, what then? Who will these people blame? Or will those states allow fraudulent votes to stand as legitimate, especially if the ballots favor their preferred candidate?

This is not about the lie. It’s not about the cost of believing the lie. It’s about the cost of refusing to question whether it’s a lie in the first place.

The failure of democracy that many seem to fear comes from the failure of people to question themselves and challenge their own beliefs. This doesn’t seem to be in our nature, or at least not in the nature of many, and I don’t know of any path or method that can compel them to do so. Do you?