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Analysis

Here We Go Again: Politicians Using the False Specter of Voter Fraud

The race for Kentucky governor ended with baseless charges of voting “irregularities.” It’s just the latest in a destructive pattern.

voting
John Sommers/Getty

Following this month’s election, Kentucky’s governor made baseless claims of voter fraud, threatening the legitimacy of the outcome. Unfortunately, this is not new. Politicians have made false allegations of significant voter fraud with little or no hard evidence on too many occasions. The charges are never borne out, but the seeds of doubt linger, with negative ramifications for voting rights lasting for years.

Extensive research has shown that in-person voter fraud is incredibly rare, and studies and court decisions have shown that it poses no real threat to the integrity of our elections. But these untrue claims are still often used to justify legislation such as strict voter ID laws, which have now spread to six states. Worse, these laws can often disproportionately impact voters of color and low-income voters, who may not have access to valid forms of identification.

The clear fact remains: in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States. But to hear these politicians tell it, it’s supposedly a common occurrence. Here are some recent offenses.

Kentucky

After finishing Election Day 2019 about 5,000 votes behind his opponent, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) claimed “irregularities” and alleged that “thousands of absentee ballots…were illegally counted.” These accusations motivated some of his supporters to form an organization intended to expose these “irregularities,” while others promoted a robocall operation aimed at rooting out suspicious activity. Disinformation quickly spread throughout Twitter to fuel these allegations.

Against this backdrop, the commonwealth addressed these claims in its customary manner. (According to some reports, the attorney general’s office received the usual number of calls to their Election Law Violation Hotline when compared to past elections.) Following a review of the vote tallies county-by-county, Bevin ultimately conceded the race to Andy Beshear last Thursday.

Texas

In 2011, Texas enacted the strictest voter ID requirement in the country, and the Brennan Center and other advocates later challenged the law in court. At the time, experts estimated it would impact more than 600,000 registered voters in Texas who did not have a valid form of identification compliant with the law. Lawmakers used the specter of in-person voter fraud to justify the law’s passage — and in the process likely disenfranchised some voters in the 2014 election.

A federal appeals court found that the law was racially discriminatory, noting that before the law was passed, there were “only two convictions of in-person impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade.” After a years-long legal battle, the court permitted Texas to implement a revised version of the law.

Despite these rulings, the false narrative of voter fraud persists in Texas and continues to negatively impact voters. In January, then-Secretary of State David Whitley attempted to remove 95,000 supposed noncitizens from the voter rolls, and alleged 58,000 had voted in at least one election. In the press release announcing these efforts, he made reference to election integrity and voter fraud prevention as justifications for these policies.

After a series of controversies and lawsuits, Whitley abandoned the effort and later resigned. Civil rights organizations subsequently released emails that showed the noncitizen voter purge campaign originated in the office of Gov. Greg Abbott (R), illustrating yet another example of politicians promoting unsubstantiated voter fraud claims.

North Carolina

In 2013, the North Carolina legislature passed one of the most suppressive election laws in the country. Passed with the purported intent of combatting voter fraud, it cut back on early voting, same-day registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and created one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. After a lengthy legal battle, a federal appeals court struck down the law and found the state passed the legislation with the intent to discriminate against African-American voters.

Furthermore, the court found the state failed to uphold its justification of the law — to prevent voter fraud — because North Carolina did not “identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.”

New Jersey

In a similar fashion, politicians on both the state and federal level have made parallel claims to justify blocking legislation intended to expand access to the ballot box.

In 2015, then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed legislation that would have implemented automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and early voting in the Garden State. Among his stated reasons: a fear of voter fraud.

Then in 2016, Christie vetoed a bill that would have enacted automatic voter registration, a policy that has proven to increase voter registration rates everywhere it has been implemented. Once again, he listed unfounded claims of voter fraud among his reasons for vetoing the bill, which he referred to as the “Voter Fraud Enhancement and Permission Act.”

Christie is out of office, and New Jersey now has automatic voter registration.   

President Trump’s Lies About the 2016 Election

After the 2016 presidential election, President Trump alleged that millions of noncitizens voted illegally (he used more offensive language) in the general election. Brennan Center research debunked this myth and found that of the 42 jurisdictions analyzed, improper noncitizen voting accounted for 0.0001 percent of the votes cast in those areas during the 2016 election.

In May 2017, President Trump used his executive authority to create the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity with the intent “to promote fair and honest Federal elections.” However, in action and composition, key members of the commission made clear the real intent: to substantiate their phony claims of widespread in-person voter fraud.

After months of controversy, public opposition, and legal challenges, President Trump disbanded it in January 2018. The commission failed to produce credible evidence or a final report to back up the president’s claims of widespread in-person voter fraud.

Looking to 2020

It’s no wonder that instances of individual voters committing fraud are incredibly rare. The potential gain of a single vote pales in comparison to the potential penalties if a person is caught. It’s a different story for the politicians who peddle the voter-fraud lie, though. They win when voters are distrustful of what they hear.

Politicians need to stop using voter fraud as a justification for anti-voter policies or to explain electoral losses. But we as the public have a role to play, too. We need to be ready if these lies reappear in the 2020 election, and we can’t fall for them.