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Doubling Down on Dubious Claims of Voter Fraud

As the push for restrictive voter ID legislation in the states continues, so too does the rhetoric surrounding voter fraud.

  • John Travis
June 29, 2011

As the push for restrictive voter ID legislation in the states continues, so too does the rhetoric surrounding voter fraud. Last week, New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran doubled down on her previous claims of voter fraud in her state. Not only did the number of the suspected cases of voter fraud balloon from 37 to 64,000, but Duran went a step further in turning over the alleged 64,000 cases to New Mexico State Police for investigation. Noting that law enforcement will be investigating what may largely amount to data entry errors, some have questioned if investigating 64,000 cases —5 percent of registered voters in New Mexico — is a wise use of state resources.

As was the case when Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler unveiled his findings of alleged voter fraud in his state, the conclusions drawn here are questionable. While Duran has not released her methodology and analysis, her description in March of how she and her staff discovered 37 cases of possible voter fraud is of great concern. As previously discussed, Duran claimed to have found 37 possible cases of voter fraud by “matching” the names and birthdays from voter registration lists with a list of foreign nationals. She further claimed to have uncovered 117 individuals whose social security numbers did not match their name. Duran has not explained how this number suddenly ballooned to 64,000.

It is well known why this methodology is problematic and likely to produce false positives: our paper-based voter registration system produces notoriously problematic lists ridden with transcription errors. People use nicknames on forms, and handwriting is often illegible. Among other reasons, transcription errors and the inconsistent entry of compound names means that social security numbers on registration rolls often may not match those in the Social Security Administration’s database. Similarly, lists of foreign nationals are not always updated and often contain the names of eligible voters who have since become citizens. Since these various lists contain millions of names, identifying people who share the same name and birthday is fairly common. Thus, this list of alleged fraudulent voters that Duran’s office has red-flagged as in need of “further review” in all probability amounts to a list of false positives. Given that 5 percent of registered voters in New Mexico may have been red-flagged as a result of administrative errors, a number of officials argued that this “further review” would more effectively be conducted by election officials rather than law enforcement.

To be sure, when officials discover evidence of fraud, it should be turned over to law enforcement. However, calling on law enforcement to investigate possible criminal activity based on discrepancies that may be attributable to clerical errors or basic statistics is unwise, irresponsible, and bordering on fear mongering. It raises a false alarm, wrongly accuses immigrant communities, unfairly faults election officials, and casts doubt on the integrity of elections. As New Mexico law enforcement officials investigate these alleged 64,000 instances, the likelihood is that evidence will uncover the infirmities of a paper-based registration system, not mass voter fraud. Until our voter system is modernized by automating the registration process, flawed database matching will continue to be used to incite fears of voter fraud.