How Real is Voter Fraud?
No, Voter Fraud Actually Isn’t A Persistent Problem
Sami Edge | News21 and Sean Holstege | News21
September 1, 2016
PHOENIX — Politicians and voting rights advocates continue to clash over whether photo ID and other voting requirements are needed to prevent voter fraud, but a News21 analysis and recent court rulings show little evidence that such fraud is widespread.
A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls.
This year, News21 reviewed cases in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud and found hundreds of allegations but few prosecutions between 2012 and 2016. Attorneys general in those states successfully prosecuted 38 cases of vote fraud, though other cases may have been litigated at the county level. At least one-third of those cases involved nonvoters, such as elections officials or volunteers. None of the cases prosecuted was for voter impersonation.
“Voter fraud is not a significant problem in the country,” Jennifer Clark of the Brennan Center told News21. “As the evidence that has come out in some recent court cases and reports and basically every analysis that has ever been done has concluded: It is not a significant concern.”
Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Camden who wrote a book on the phenomenon in 2010 called “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said in an interview that she hasn’t seen an uptick in the crime since. “Voter fraud remains rare because it is irrational behavior,” she said. “You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there and we have rules to prevent against it.”
Christopher Coates, former chief of the voting section in the Department of Justice, disagrees. “The claim by the liberal left that there is no voter fraud that is going on is completely false,” he told News21. “Anytime that there are people voting that are not legally entitled to vote that’s a big issue. It carries with it the potential for deciding elections a way that is contrary to the voting majority of people.”
Coates, who now works as the general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, pointed to a list of voter fraud allegations kept by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The list, based largely on news clippings and news releases, counted more than 100 allegations of voter fraud in the United States since 2012, only a handful of which were allegations of voter impersonation that could have been prevented by voter ID. The Republican National Lawyers Association also has a list of more than 200 allegations of election fraud of all kinds reported by news outlets since 2012.
The 2016 Republican platform, adopted in July, urges states to require proof of citizenship and photo ID out of concern that “voting procedures may be open to abuse.” At the same time, in the summer, several federal courts struck down or revised a number of the state laws requiring specific forms of photo ID at the polls.
In July, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, concluding that there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in Wisconsin, or in the rest of the United States.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told News21 that the number of fraud cases is beside the point. “All it takes is one person whose vote is canceled by someone not voting legally and that’s a problem,” he said. “I always tell folks who oppose (the ID law) tell me whose vote they want canceled out.”
A similarly strict voter ID law was weakened by a federal appeals court in Texas, after a panel of judges determined that the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that African-Americans were 1.79 times more likely — and Latinos 2.42 times more likely – than whites to lack the required identification.
Kim Strach, director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, testified in a recent court case about North Carolina’s voter ID law that she has referred two cases of voter impersonation to prosecutors since 2013.
In July, a federal appeals court for the 4th Circuit decided that the North Carolina law intentionally discriminated against minority voters and ordered the state to make voter ID requirements less strict. In attempting to “combat voter fraud and promote public confidence,” the state ignored the issue of absentee ballot fraud, instead cracking down on voter impersonation, a problem “that did not exist,” according to the court decision. Absentee ballots are “disproportionately used by whites,” the court said, while the voter ID restrictions enacted “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
To vote repeatedly in person on election day, someone would have to steal another voter’s ballot. Minnite, the Rutgers professor, says that’s as difficult as “pickpocketing a cop.”
A voter would need to know names, addresses and other identifying information about whoever they were impersonating, she said. Then they would have to show up to the polling place and pretend to be that other person in front of the same elections officials who had likely seen them vote in their own name. Beyond that, they’d have to hope that nobody in the polling place knew the person they were impersonating.
That’s not to say fraud doesn’t happen at all.
In Arizona, 13 cases were prosecuted for double voting. One of those was Mesa resident Regina Beaupre, who was convicted in 2015 after voting in Michigan and Arizona. She was 71 years old. Carol Hannah was similarly caught for voting in Arizona and Colorado. She argued in court that both cases involved local races and didn’t constitute double voting, because no candidates appeared on both ballots. An appeals court agreed and threw out the 2015 conviction. Neither of these cases would have been prevented with voter ID.
In 2014, Verna Roehm, a 77-year-old from Waxhaw, N.C., pleaded guilty to voting twice. Roehm voted once at the polls and a second time with an absentee ballot in the name of her dead husband. She told prosecutors she had fulfilled her husband’s dying wish to cast his ballot for Mitt Romney in November 2012.
Since only one of Roehm’s ballots was cast in person, her crime also would not have been prevented with voter ID.
Andrew Clark and Hillary Davis contributed to this report.
This report is part of the project titled Voting Wars – Rights | Power | Privilege, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Sami Edge | @sami_edge
Sami Edge is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. She has worked as a crime reporting intern at The Seattle Times and a watchdog reporting intern at Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon. She served as the editor of the independent student newspaper, The Emerald.
Sean Holstege | @SeanHolstege
Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow, Sean Holstege, is a master’s degree student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic, the Oakland Tribune and during a 30-year print journalism career, was part of a team that produced two Pulitzer Prize finalist submissions in breaking news.
Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth
Brennan Center for Justice
September 1, 2016
Sensationalist claims have circulated this election season about the extent of voter fraud, with some politicians going so far as to tell voters to fear that this November’s election will be “rigged.” Because electoral integrity is one of the elements necessary to making America the greatest democracy in the world, claims like this garner media attention, and frighten and concern voters. But putting rhetoric aside to look at the facts makes clear that fraud by voters at the polls is vanishingly rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to that necessary to “rig” an election.
Studies Agree: Impersonation Fraud by Voters Very Rarely Happens
- The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
- A study published by a Columbia University political scientist tracked incidence rates for voter fraud for two years, and found that the rare fraud that was reported generally could be traced to “false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error.”
- A comprehensive 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. Even this tiny number is likely inflated, as the study’s author counted not just prosecutions or convictions, but any and all credible claims.
- Two studies done at Arizona State University, one in 2012 and another in 2016, found similarly negligible rates of impersonation fraud. The project found 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud nationwide from 2000-2012. The follow-up study, which looked for fraud specifically in states where politicians have argued that fraud is a pernicious problem, found zero successful prosecutions for impersonation fraud in five states from 2012-2016.
Courts Agree: Fraud by Voters at the Polls is Nearly Non-Existent
- The Fifth Circuit, in an opinion finding that Texas’s strict photo ID law is racially discriminatory, noted that there were “only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade” before Texas passed its law.
- In its opinion striking down North Carolina’s omnibus restrictive election law —which included a voter ID requirement — as purposefully racially discriminatory, the Fourth Circuit noted that the state “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.”
- A federal trial court in Wisconsin reviewing that state’s strict photo ID law found “that impersonation fraud — the type of fraud that voter ID is designed to prevent — is extremely rare” and “a truly isolated phenomenon that has not posed a significant threat to the integrity of Wisconsin’s elections.”
- Even the Supreme Court, in its opinion in Crawford upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, noted that the record in the case “contains no evidence of any [in-person voter impersonation] fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.” Two of the jurists who weighed in on that case at the time — Republican-appointed former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and conservative appellate court Judge Richard Posner — have since announced they regret their votes in favor of the law, with Judge Posner noting that strict photo ID laws are “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”
Those Who Publicly Argue Voter Fraud is Rampant Have Found Scant Evidence of it When They Go Looking for It
- Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a longtime proponent of voter suppression efforts, argued before state lawmakers that his office needed special power to prosecute voter fraud, because he knew of 100 such cases in his state. After being granted these powers, he has brought six such cases, of which only four have been successful. The secretary has also testified about his review of 84 million votes cast in 22 states, which yielded 14 instances of fraud referred for prosecution, which amounts to a 0.00000017 percent fraud rate.
- Texas lawmakers purported to pass its strict photo ID law to protect against voter fraud. Yet the chief law enforcement official in the state responsible for such prosecutions knew of only one conviction and one guilty plea that involved in-person voter fraud in all Texas elections from 2002 through 2014.
- A specialized United States Department of Justice unit formed with the goal of finding instances of federal election fraud examined the 2002 and 2004 federal elections, and were able to prove that 0.00000013 percent of ballots cast were fraudulent. There was no evidence that any of these incidents involved in-person impersonation fraud.
The verdict is in from every corner that voter fraud is sufficiently rare that it simply could not and does not happen at the rate even approaching that which would be required to “rig” an election. Electoral integrity is key to our democracy, and politicians who genuinely care about protecting our elections should focus not on phantom fraud concerns, but on those abuses that actually threaten election security.
As historians and election experts have catalogued, there is a long history in this country of racially suppressive voting measures — including poll taxes and all-white primaries — put in place under the guise of stopping voter fraud that wasn’t actually occurring in the first place. The surest way toward voting that is truly free, fair, and accessible is to know the facts in the face of such rhetoric.
Voting System Security and Reliability Risks
Brennan Center for Justice
August 30, 2016
The last few weeks have brought renewed attention to the security and reliability of our voting systems. After credible reports last month that Russia was attempting to influence American elections by hacking into the DNC email server and other campaign files, new reports show the FBI has determined foreign hackers penetrated two state election databases.
This fact sheet describes what the risks to America’s voting system security really are — and what states, localities, and voters can do to prevent successful attacks against the integrity of our elections.
The Brennan Center has studied the use of computerized voting systems for over a decade. In a comprehensive study released last year, we found the use of outdated voting equipment across the country presents serious security and reliability challenges.
The United States has made important advances in securing our voting technology in the last few years. Relatively few votes are cast over the internet or machines connected to the internet, and the vast majority of ballots will be cast on systems that have a paper trail that allows election officials to independently verify software totals. This makes it highly unlikely that a cyberattack against our voting machines could have a widespread impact on the results of a national election.
Still, there is much more we should do to promote the security and accuracy of our voting systems. Computer scientists have demonstrated that older equipment, in particular, can be very insecure. It is also more difficult to maintain, and more likely to fail (even without interference from an attacker) on Election Day. While small-scale attacks or failures of individual machines might not have a widespread impact on national vote totals, they can severely damage voter confidence, and would be particularly troubling in very close contests.
Similarly, while proper safeguards can ensure attacks on voter registration databases don’t prevent a legitimate voter from casting a ballot or having her vote counted, an attack on these systems could put voters’ personal information at risk. Election officials must take all steps necessary to protect such information.
In the short run, we should do everything we can to minimize the impact of such attacks or failures. In the long run, we must treat our election infrastructure like other critical infrastructure, with regular investments and upgrades.