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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.

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.