Voter fraud is a troubling premise. The strength of our democracy is derived from one fundamental ideal: one person, one vote. The notion that innumerable illegal votes could offset the outcome of an election is troubling to anyone who values a fair and free democracy.
But there is no evidence that widespread, systemic voter fraud happens. No evidence whatsoever. There is no evidence that the few ineligible votes cast each year have any effect on electoral outcomes. According to The Washington Post, “There is overwhelming scholarly and legal consensus that voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and in fact nonexistent at the levels imagined by voter ID proponents.”
Voting can be time consuming, and the penalties for fraudulent voting are serious. Who among us is willing to risk serious legal trouble to cast a fraudulent ballot? It doesn’t add up. As Richard L. Hasen, professor at Loyola Law School and author of the Election Law Blog, says:
“The idea of massive polling-place fraud (through the use of inflated voter rolls) is inherently incredible. Suppose I want to swing the Missouri election for my preferred presidential candidate. I would have to figure out who the fake, dead or missing people on the registration rolls are, then pay a lot of other individuals to go to the polling place and claim to be Mary Poppins or Old Dead Bob, without any return guarantee—thanks to the secret ballot—that any of them will cast a vote for my preferred candidate. Those who do show up at the polls run the risk of being detected […] and charged with a felony. And for what—$10? […] Polling-place fraud, in short, makes no sense.”
Yet politicians around the nation have, for years, claimed that voter fraud is a widespread, systemic problem. Now we have a president who has repeatedly claimed that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in support of his opponent in the 2016 election, despite the fact that he cannot provide evidence to support this claim, and that his only source seems to be a conspiracy theorist with no real expertise in this area.
This issue has been raised so often that roughly 1 in 4 Americans believes that voter fraud is a real problem. But let’s be very clear: there is no credible evidence that such a thing happens at any significant scale in the United States of America.
Individual instances of voter fraud do occur, albeit rarely. Each of the many investigations conducted over the years has identified specific, isolated examples of voter fraud. This is wrong, it is illegal, and when it happens the individuals should be punished appropriately.
But these investigations have also disproven the claim that there is systemic, widespread, undetected voter fraud affecting our electoral outcomes. When illegal ballots are cast, they generally fall into a few categories:
- Voting with a felony conviction, due to confusing rules and regulations.
- Voting by absentee ballot for a deceased relative.
- Attempting to vote twice across state lines.
- Misunderstanding voting laws and attempting to register and vote as a resident noncitizen.
These are the kinds of stories that explain the handful of cases of voter fraud in 2016 identified by the Washington Post directly after the November 2016 election.
Because of the repeated claims that rampant voter fraud exists, many academic, journalistic, or governmental investigations into voter fraud have been conducted within the last decade. Let’s dissect their findings.
Project Vote’s The Politics of Voter Fraud
Project Vote has been working for more than a decade to dispel claims about voter fraud. In 2006-2007, Project Vote contracted a respected political scientist to dig into the issue of voter fraud. The result of that research was a report, The Politics of Voter Fraud, published in March 2007.
In this report, Dr. Lorraine Minnite defines voter fraud as “the intentional corruption of the electoral process by the voter.” In her investigation, Dr. Minnite found that, at the federal level, “an average of eight people a year” were convicted of voter fraud between 2002-2005.
Dr. Minnite writes:
“There are hundreds of examples drawn from state election codes and constitutions that illustrate the precision with which states have criminalized voter and election fraud. If we use the same standards for judging voter fraud crime rates as we do for other crimes, we must conclude that the lack of evidence of arrests, indictments or convictions for any of the practices defined as voter fraud means very little fraud is being committed.”
Additionally, Dr. Minnite’s words, written nearly a decade ago, still ring remarkably true:
“The lack of evidence is not due to a failure to codify voter fraud as a crime, nor is it due to the inability or unwillingness of local law enforcement agencies to investigate or prosecute potential cases of voter fraud. In fact, when we probe most allegations of voter fraud we find errors, incompetence and partisanship. The exaggerated fear of voter fraud has a long history of scuttling efforts to make voting easier and more inclusive, especially for marginalized groups in American society. With renewed partisan vigor fantasies of fraud are being spun again to undo some of the progress America has made lowering barriers to the vote.”
Dr. Minnite furthered this research and published a book in 2010, The Myth of Voter Fraud, a book declared by the New York Times to be “One of the most rigorous academic investigations of the topic.” In the book, “Dr. Minnite examined thousands of voter-fraud complaints in four states—California, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon—and found only scattered verifiable instances of wrongdoing.”
Pew Center on the States, Inaccurate, Costly, and Ineffective: Evidence that America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade
This report, published in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States, is the study that Mr. Pence, Mr. Trump, and their spokespeople have referred to repeatedly, citing its data as proof of widespread “voter fraud.” In reality, the data in this report point only to a need to modernize registration systems and more carefully clean voter rolls. (David Becker, who directed the research for the Pew report, has personally refuted the administration’s claims, saying there was no evidence of fraud from his findings.)
The report outlines the costly, outdated, paper-based voter registration systems that are still used by many states to register voters and maintain voter rolls. These systems mean that states and taxpayers spend several dollars per transaction to process voter registration records and maintain voter rolls. But, the report aims to show how modernized, paperless systems (such as online voter registration) can drastically reduce the cost per transaction and can help states maintain cleaner, more accurate voter rolls.
This report includes some numbers, which have been cited by the Trump team repeatedly:
- “Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.
- More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters.
- Approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state.”
Becker has pointed out that these numbers are now five years old, and may not be accurate. But either way, none of these numbers indicate that millions of ineligible or deceased people are actually casting ballots. Just because a registration is listed on the voter rolls does not mean deceased individuals are voting, or that millions of citizens are voting in multiple states.
These numbers only indicate that voter rolls require careful, thoughtful maintenance. There should be mechanisms in place to identify and remove the registrations of deceased voters. Individuals should, ideally, make more of an effort to notify state officials and cancel old registrations after a move. But none of this data indicates that millions of illegal votes are cast as a result of outdated voter registrations.
Brennan Center for Justice, The Truth About Voter Fraud
In November 2007, Justin Levitt, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, published a report finding that claims of widespread voter fraud make for good headlines, but claimants always fall short of providing solid evidence. Still, these baseless claims are routinely used to promote the need for voter identification laws and other rule changes that can negatively affect voter access.
Levitt writes: “The most common example of the harm wrought by imprecise and inflated claims of ‘voter fraud’ is the call for in-person photo identification requirements. Such photo ID laws are effective only in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls—an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning.”
Furthermore, Levitt writes: “There have been a handful of substantiated cases of individual ineligible voters attempting to defraud the election system. But by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.
“In part, this is because fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish and ineffective way to attempt to win an election. Each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to state penalties. In return, it yields at most one incremental vote. That single extra vote is simply not worth the price.”
John Ahlquist and Kenneth R. Mayer, University of Wisconsin and Simon Jackman, Stanford, Fraudulent Votes, Voter Identification and the 2012 U.S. General Election
This academic research paper reviews voting data in multiple states—particularly data from closely contested states, where the temptation to commit voter fraud is presumably highest—to determine what kinds of fraud seem to occur, and to understand how reflexive voter ID laws might help to overcome that fraud. The authors conclude:
“This paper presented what is, to our knowledge, the first and only attempt to estimate, nationwide, the levels of fraudulent voting and vote buying in a major US election. We employed a survey list experiment, including one that has been shown to work in other contexts, to better elicit truthful reports of fraudulent voting. Happily, we find no evidence of systematic voter fraud or vote buying in this election. We find this particularly encouraging given the closeness and high stakes of the election along with the amount of money spent by candidates, parties, and ‘dark money’ organizations.”
Iowa Secretary of State, Matt Schultz
Matt Schultz was elected as Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State in 2010. Upon taking office in 2011, Mr. Schultz undertook an extensive, two-year investigation to uncover voter fraud and justify the voter ID and proof of citizenship laws that he advocated were necessary to protect the integrity of Iowa’s elections.
After this two-year investigation, which cost the state of Iowa $250,000, Mr. Schultz investigated 238 cases and filed criminal charges in 27 cases. According to the Des Moines Register, “guilt was established in six cases.” In one prosecuted case, the defendant was found not guilty because she believed—and had received legal advice in agreement—that her voting rights were restored after serving time for a felony conviction.
Again, according to the Des Moines Register:
“In fact, fraud is the wrong word for these cases. The legal meaning of fraud is an ‘intentional perversion of the truth’ that results in injury. Instead, it is likely that the vast majority of these cases were people who did not set out to commit election fraud but rather made a mistake because Iowa’s voter eligibility rules and forms are confusing…Take, for example, the Lee County woman with a felony record who was prosecuted as a result of Schultz’s investigation because she registered and voted in a local election. She voted not out of fraudulent intent but because her lawyer said her voting rights would be restored when she completed probation. This case should never have been prosecuted in the first place, and the jury did not take long to find her not guilty.”
Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach
Kris Kobach has literally built his career on exaggerated claims of voter fraud and non-citizen voting. During his first campaign for Secretary of State, he said that he decided to run because “The way people are disenfranchised in America today, you go to the polls, you cast your vote, but then your vote is cancelled out by somebody else that has voted 10 fraudulent names.”
But Kobach has never provided any evidence that voter fraud is a problem in Kansas; in fact, his own, partisan-motivated investigations contradict his claims. As the Washington Post reported, Kobach conducted a huge, multi-state investigation looking for duplicate registrations in 2013, examining 84 million votes cast in 22 states. In the end, 14 cases were referred for prosecution, representing 0.00000017 percent of the votes cast.
In 2015, Kobach lobbied the Kansas Legislature for unprecedented power to prosecute alleged voter fraud cases if county prosecutors declined to do so. Though Kobach originally claimed he knew of at least 100 cases of double voting, he ended up getting only four minor, misdemeanor convictions, all of senior citizens who had no intention of gaming the system.
To date, Kobach continues to rail—both in his state, and on the federal level—against the dangers of non-citizen voting. But, even with his sweeping prosecutorial authority, he has yet to identify a single case of non-citizen voting in Kansas.
“It was all part of Kobach’s continued loathsome attacks on U.S. immigration policy,” opined the Kansas City Star in 2016. “He knew he could score political points with many Kansans by promising to stop ‘illegal’ voters from canceling out the votes of red-blooded Americans. But now Kobach has been exposed as a big fraud on the issue of voter fraud, which studies have found to be almost nonexistent in America.”
Wisconsin’s Election Fraud Task Force
Wisconsin’s Election Fraud Task Force was formed in July 2008 by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. The task force was formed to investigate election systems and ensure that the process was fair, that votes were properly counted, and that the processes were free of partisan influence. After years of investigation, in early 2011 the task force “charged 20 people with committing some form of election fraud in the 2008 election.”
Of the 20 charged, 11 were charged with voting with a felony conviction, six were charged with voter registration misconduct, two were charged with double voting, and one person was found to have obtained and cast an absentee ballot for his deceased wife. It should be noted that nearly 3 million ballots were cast in Wisconsin’s 2008 general election, meaning that these 20 fraudulent ballots accounted for 0.0000066 percent of all ballots cast that year.
Despite these findings, Wisconsin’s elected leaders went on to adopt a strict voter ID law in 2011, which was challenged by multiple voting rights groups, with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Wisconsin serving as plaintiff. Plaintiffs claimed the law incurred an undue burden for Black and Latino voters, in part because these Wisconsin residents are more likely to have been born out of state and therefore have a more difficult time procuring the documents (such as a birth certificate) needed to prove their identity and obtain an acceptable state ID. In a decision issued by US District Court Judge Lynn Adelman in 2014, Justice Adelman wrote:
“The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin. The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.”
Justice Adelman continued:
“Moreover, if voter impersonation is occurring often enough to threaten the integrity of the electoral process, then we should be able to find more evidence that it is occurring than we do. If, for example, voter impersonation is a frequent occurrence, then we should find more than two unexplained cases per major election in which a voter arrives at the polls only to discover that someone has already cast a ballot in his or her name.”
This decision was later overturned and Wisconsin’s voter ID law remains in effect. The 2016 elections were the first major elections in which Wisconsin voters had to show a current, Wisconsin state ID to vote.
Occasionally, lawmakers will make the mistake of revealing the real intention of these restrictive voter ID laws. In April of 2016, Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman was asked why he believed the GOP candidate could win Wisconsin for the first time in more than 30 years. “Now we have photo ID,” Grothman said. “And I think photo ID is gonna make a little bit of a difference.”
Trump, as predicted, won Wisconsin, by 27,000 votes. Though it’s disputed how many Wisconsin voters could not obtain the ID needed, officials say that, in Milwaukee alone, 2016 voter turnout was down by 41,000 votes compared to voter turnout in 2012.
News21, Comprehensive Database of U.S. Voter Fraud
In August 2012, News21 published the results of an investigation that analyzed 2,068 alleged cases of election fraud since 2000:
“In an exhaustive public records search, News21 reporters sent thousands of requests to elections officers in 50 states, asking for every case of fraudulent activity including registration fraud, absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, false election counts, campaign fraud, casting an ineligible vote, voting twice, voter impersonation fraud and intimidation.
“Analysis of the resulting comprehensive News21election fraud database turned up 10 cases of voter impersonation. With 146 million registered voters in the United States during that time, those 10 cases represent one out of about every 15 million prospective voters.”
The article goes on to quote political scientists, election law experts, and politicians and advocates on both sides of the debate.
As study after study has proven, voter fraud does not represent a significant threat to our democratic process. In fact, the greatest threat to our democracy may be the disingenuous notion that ineligible, fraudulent votes are somehow changing the outcome of our elections. These claims are almost always political and partisan in nature, and their goal is to justify strict rules and requirements that negatively affect voter access.