In the last question of Monday night’s presidential debate, the moderator asked both candidates whether they would accept the outcome of the election were their opponent to win. In other years, that might have been an odd question. But this year, allegations that the election might be “rigged” have amplified the persistent perpetuation of myths about voter fraud, and led to worrisome calls for voters to “police” the polling place for such purported fraud.
Sensationalist claims have circulated this election season about the extent of voter fraud, yet no matter how the data is sliced, the same conclusion is apparent: impersonation fraud at the polls is very, very rare. The Brennan Center reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. A study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of fraud out of over 1 billion ballots cast from 2000 to 2014. Every single court decision from this year that has considered the incident rates of voter fraud — in Texas, in North Carolina, in Kansas, in Wisconsin, in North Dakota — has concluded that voter fraud is rare. The evidentiary case against the voter fraud myth goes on and on and on. This rarity is not surprising, as impersonation fraud at the polls is an ineffective and risky way to alter the outcome of an election, carrying the risk of up to $10,000 in fines and prison time.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, claims that voter fraud is rampant consistently garner media attention, because perceived threats to electoral integrity — even those with no basis in fact — frighten voters by striking at the core of our democracy.
Out of this fear have emerged concerning calls for voters to self-police polling places this November. If history is any indicator, asking lay-citizens to do the job of election judges will likely cause increased discrimination at the ballot box. In 2012, for example, activists challenged the registrations of more than 2,100 Ohio voters. The activists focused their challenges on students and African Americans, but the allegations proved baseless. In a 2004 primary election in Georgia, several voters made blanket challenges to most Hispanic voters in their precinct, claiming the voters were not American citizens. In that instance, many challenges were based on nothing more than the voters’ Hispanic surnames.
Federal and state laws prohibit precisely this kind of discrimination at the polling place. Prohibited practices include asking questions only to members of a protected group, requiring only members of a specific group to show ID, or challenging members of a specific group’s eligibility to vote. Federal and state laws similarly prohibit any conduct that intimidates voters. Voters are free to exercise their right to vote without confronting threats or fearing retribution. Intimidating practices can include directly confronting voters, using insulting, offensive, or threatening language toward voters, or attempting to coerce a voter to vote, not to vote, or to vote for or against a particular candidate. Many states also forbid poll-watchers from dressing in official-seeming clothing in order to prevent the impression that poll-watchers are acting in a law enforcement capacity.
Information and action are powerful antidotes to fear. Given the current political climate, it is more important than ever that voters know the facts on voter fraud, and understand their rights at the polling place. Regardless of which candidates are victorious this November, the only electoral outcome we can accept is free, fair, and accessible elections for all eligible Americans.