How Public Misconceptions about Voter Fraud Result in the Disenfranchisement of Legitimate Voters
According to a recent poll, 20 percent of Americans believe a defunct community organization will steal the midterm elections. Even more absurd, more than 60 percent of the public believes that this group and any other organization that conducts voter registration drives has the capacity to commit voter fraud on such a gigantic scale as to influence the outcome of hundreds of elections on November 2.
This unfounded hysteria has very real implications for voter registration policy and election law. When the public has such an irrational fear of voter fraud, their elected representatives feel compelled to create policies, like proof of citizenship requirements and photo ID laws, that make it much more difficult for legitimate voters to cast a ballot on Election Day. In a misguided attempt to stop the perceived threat of voter fraud, citizens and policymakers have supported laws which effectively disenfranchise a significant portion of the population, especially minorities and the poor.
It could be tempting to dismiss this poll as irrelevant, or just another example of the ridiculous things that 20 percent of Americans believe. After all, one in five Americans are unaware who the U.S. declared independence from, believe in alien abductions, and think that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Still, even if we are willing to write off 20 percent of Americans as hopelessly deluded or willfully ignorant, that does not account for the additional 40 percent that are “not sure” whether voter fraud could steal an election. How could 60 percent of Americans get the idea that voter fraud is so widespread as to potentially influence elections?
Everyone with even a passing interest in politics has heard stories about “zombie voters,” where thousands of long dead citizens inexplicably vote in elections. These stories are repeated year after year, and like urban legends, they gain an aura of truth in the retelling. Yet, many of these stories of voter fraud are just that: stories. According to a report from the Brennan Center, an individual is more likely to be struck by lightning than to knowingly impersonate another voter at the polls. A report by Lorraine Minnite, director of research at Project Vote and former assistant professor of American and urban politics at Barnard College, found only 24 people that were convicted of voter fraud at the federal level between 2002 and 2005. Minnite also finds that evidence of voter fraud at the state level is “negligible,” so much so that no states have even collected statistics on voter fraud.
Put simply, there appears to be no evidence indicating that voter fraud is anything but extremely rare. There is zero empirical evidence that voter fraud is remotely widespread enough to influence the outcome of any upcoming election, never mind so widespread as to ensure that one party fraudulently wins multiple federal elections. By lending credence to unsubstantiated stories of voter fraud, a majority of the American public perpetuates the myth of stolen elections and influences debilitating and undemocratic election policy. By invoking this myth, politicians and outside organizations can confuse the public into fearing voter registration organizations and supporting measures to raise barriers to democracy. The real fraud is not being perpetrated by voter registration organizations, but by those that seek to shut down voter registration out of an unjustified fear of virtually nonexistent voter fraud.
Anthony Balady is a legal intern at Project Vote