Although I don’t normally deal with politics in my blog, I do deal with conspiracy theories and how scientists determine the truth. In that sense I have written posts about the 2020 election addressing both the election conspiracy and the methodology employed to investigate fraud in the election. In this post I want to address the issue regarding the nature, significance, and validity of affidavits presented by the Trump campaign as evidence of fraud.
One of the often repeated claims in the 2020 election was that Mr. Trump’s lawyers had hundreds of affidavits that indicated the existence of widespread voter fraud. An affidavit is a sworn written testimony by an individual that states that what the individual is telling is the truth. An affidavit is made under penalty of perjury, which means that if it is determined that the individual lied in their testimony they can be exposed to legal consequences. Many people take this to mean that Mr. Trump had strong evidence that voter fraud took place. After all, these witnesses were willing to sign these documents and face the consequences if their testimonies were shown to be false.
However, this is not how an affidavit works. An affidavit merely certifies that a person considers that their assessment of reality is true. An affidavit does not rule out the possibility that the particular perception of reality that the person describes is wrong; it merely states that they consider it to be true. And you cannot prosecute people for believing honestly that something false is true. You have to demonstrate that there was intent to deceive, and in the majority of cases this is very difficult to prove. So the “sworn and signed under penalty of perjury” argument for the validity of affidavits is an exaggeration.
But, what about the claims that were made in these documents?
It is not my intention to go over these claims in detail, as others have already done that. A proper affidavit should just stick to the facts and avoid opinions, hearsay, describing the views of others, and unfounded beliefs. Unfortunately, most of the claims behind the affidavits provided by Mr. Trump’s lawyers were assertions or beliefs that some things had happened, combined with conjectures about possible sinister motives behind these things. Other claims were merely things such as mean looks or rude remarks people had made at claimants, or suspicious things they had seen or heard. The majority of these claims were the product of hearsay, guesses, and speculations combined with ignorance by the claimants of the vote counting process or the voting dynamics. The claims in these affidavits did not hold up under scrutiny and they were dismissed by judges (several of them selected by Mr. Trump) as inadmissible or not credible.
However, I want to point out a much broader issue regarding affidavits. Science has long known that people who are looking for something will tend to find it, even if there is nothing to be found. This is encapsulated in the dictum: “expectation influences perception.” Scientists also know that when an individual is exposed to a certain stimulus, this can influence the individual’s response to a subsequent stimulus. This is a process called “priming”. If, for example, you release the news that a mountain lion is loose in the city (even if this is not true), you deliver a primary stimulus that creates an expectation. If you then provide a telephone number to call in case somebody sights the animal, that phone will be ringing all day. When people thus primed are exposed to the normal stimuli that they encounter day to day as they go about their business, a significant number of them will reinterpret these stimuli to indicate that they have seen the mountain lion.
Based on the foregoing, it is noteworthy that Mr. Trump repeatedly raised the possibility of voter fraud in the months leading up to the election and mentioned it regularly during the process of counting of the votes and afterwards. In view of his extensive social media presence at the time, this could have had a large priming effect on his supporters that raised expectations about voter fraud, and could have led them to interpret any glitches in the system, clerical errors, interactions with other poll workers and observers, and even routine election procedures that they were not familiar with, in the worst possible light. If you are primed to find fraud, especially if the person you voted for lost or is is losing, you will find it.
It is partly because of the above that in this case affidavits alone are not reliable evidence. There has to be additional supporting evidence of good quality that buttresses what the affidavits allege is true. In the case of the 2020 election court cases that were dismissed on their merits, the courts considered that no such evidence was provided to them.
Image by Nick Youngson from Picpedia is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.