Mail voting has taken on new importance as a crucial strategy for protecting voters’ safety amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As if on cue, President Trump and his surrogates have claimed that mail voting is rife with fraud, and that efforts to expand access to mail voting — like Michigan's, for example — are illegitimate. That is incorrect: as the Brennan Center has explained, fraud in mail voting remains extremely rare, and none of the states that hold their elections primarily by mail have had voter fraud scandals since implementing the systems.
These claims of widespread fraud are nothing more than old wine in new bottles. President Trump and his allies have long claimed, without evidence, that different aspects of our elections are infected with voter fraud. Before mail voting, they pushed similar false narratives about noncitizen voting, voter impersonation, and double voting in order to enact laws that reduce turnout and discredit adverse election results.
Here are 10 of the most egregious voter fraud claims of the past five years.
Weeks after being elected in 2016, the president tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Brennan Center researched and rebutted claims of widespread noncitizen voting. The ensuing report found only about 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting that were referred for further investigation or prosecution out of 23.5 million votes tabulated in the 42 jurisdictions studied, which were selected because of their high rates of noncitizen residents. In other words, noncitizen votes accounted for no more than 0.0001 percent of the 2016 votes in these jurisdictions.
For years, the president and his allies have tried to explain his loss in the Granite State by alleging that nonresident students were bused in from neighboring states to vote illegally.
The Brennan Center and a number of journalists have rebutted this claim — as did New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who was a member of Trump’s own voter fraud commission. An investigation by the New Hampshire attorney general found virtually zero evidence of voter fraud in the state. Even though Trump’s claim was baseless, it has had a harmful effect on elections. Since 2016, the state has enacted two laws to make it more difficult for students to register and to vote. Furthermore, Trump has revived the claim, repeating it at a New Hampshire rally in February 2020.
In 2016 and 2017, an activist group called the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) published two documents — Alien Invasion of Virginia and Alien Invasion II, replete with flying saucers on the cover — claiming that thousands of noncitizens had registered and voted illegally in Virginia. PILF has targeted jurisdictions around the country, urging them to purge their voter rolls more aggressively.
The PILF documents misidentified lawfully registered U.S. citizens as noncitizens. Furthermore, PILF doxed these individuals, exposing their names, home addresses, and, in some cases, telephone numbers and email addresses. Voting rights advocates brought a lawsuit in response, arguing that the documents’ inaccurate claims were defamatory and also constituted voter intimidation, a violation of federal law. PILF initially fought the lawsuit but ultimately settled after an early loss in the litigation. As part of the settlement, PILF took down from its websites the exhibits that referenced individual voters, and PILF’s president issued a written apology to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
In 2017, presidential press secretary Sean Spicer used a study, authored by professors at Old Dominion University and George Mason University, to justify Trump’s claims that widespread voter fraud marred the 2016 election. The study claimed that up to 14 percent of noncitizens had voted in recent elections, based on an analysis of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which surveys tens of thousands of Americans about their election experience.
According to the scholars who run the CCES, the authors of the Old Dominion study misused CCES data to reach their conclusions. In surveys like the CCES, some individuals respond incorrectly to the survey’s questions. As a result, a small number of citizens were misclassified as noncitizens. The authors of the discredited study failed to account for this “measurement error,” rendering their study “irresponsible social science” that “should never have been published in the first place.” The CCES scholars concluded that “the likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent US elections is 0.”
In November 2018, the president claimed: “The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes. When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again.”
The Brennan Center, alongside academics and journalists, have investigated claims of voter-impersonation fraud (which happens when an ineligible voter pretends to be an eligible voter at the polls) and found that it almost never happens. A Brennan Center report determined that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter-impersonation fraud. Follow-up work by Loyola Law School’s Justin Levitt found just 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014 out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.
In 2017, members of President Trump’s doomed voter fraud commission relied on a Heritage Foundation database that claimed to contain evidence of approximately 1,100 instances of voter fraud.
The Brennan Center analyzed this database and found that the claims were “grossly exaggerated” and “devoid of context.” There were only 10 cases involving in-person voter-impersonation fraud and only 41 involving noncitizen voting. Put in context, the think tank inadvertently undermined claims of widespread voter fraud. In the period covered by the database, which stretched back to the Truman era, more than 3 billion votes were cast in federal elections alone, along with many more in state and local elections. Thus, the cases identified in the database made up an infinitesimally small portion of the overall number of votes cast. Less than seven months after its inception, Trump’s voter fraud commission was disbanded.
In 2018, Rick Scott — at the time the governor of Florida — claimed without evidence that there was “rampant fraud” in the U.S. Senate election he ended up winning. This was a stark example of candidates in close races making wild fraud allegations to discredit the vote-counting process.
Scott’s claims of fraud were quickly and widely rejected, including by members of his own administration. For example, election monitors from Scott’s administration reported that they saw no evidence of fraud in Broward County, a focal point of Scott's accusations. A state judge, in an emergency lawsuit brought by the Scott campaign, also said that he had seen no evidence of fraud. Ultimately, in April 2020, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement closed lengthy investigations into these issues, finding no evidence to support Scott's allegations of widespread fraud.
During a 2018 federal court trial, then–Secretary of State Kris Kobach claimed there were approximately 18,000 noncitizens on the Kansas voter rolls in order to justify his state’s documentary proof of citizenship (DPOC) law.
A federal district court rejected Kobach’s claim that the “best estimate” available was that 18,000 noncitizens were on Kansas voter rolls. The former secretary of state’s claim drew from the analysis of an expert witness he had hired to support his case, but the court found that the analysis “suffer[ed] from flaws that give it little probative value.” After trial, the court found that only 39 noncitizens had successfully registered to vote between 1999 and 2013 (before the DPOC law was put in place) — just 0.002 percent of all registered voters. The law blocked more than 31,000 Kansans from registering to vote between 2013 and 2016. The court struck it down, holding that it violated federal law, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision in April 2020. The court also ordered Kobach to attend legal training classes, in response to his repeated violation of court rules.
In 2019, then–Secretary of State David Whitley declared that 95,000 noncitizens were on Texas’s voter rolls and accused 58,000 of them of casting a ballot. State officials and the president seized on these statistics to suggest that new voting laws, including voter ID laws, were needed. In addition, Whitley started forwarding lists of names to county election officials so that they could be purged from the rolls.
Almost immediately, county officials complained that the lists were inaccurate. A federal court quickly intervened to halt any purges that were based on the lists. Whitley had developed his lists by comparing driver’s license records with the state’s voter rolls. But noncitizens can first obtain driver’s licenses and later naturalize, making them eligible to register to vote. This happens frequently, especially in Texas, where 55,000 people become citizens each year. Whitley eventually apologized for the lists and resigned. Even though Trump amplified the claims when they were first aired, he never issued a correction when they were proven inaccurate.
In 2019, Gov. Matt Bevin lost his reelection campaign. He immediately sought a recanvass of the votes, claiming without evidence that there were “significant irregularities” in the election process. These claims appear to have been part of an effort to build momentum to challenge the election outcome before the state legislature.
The governor and his supporters alleged that the election results were contaminated by voter fraud and improper administration (such as absentee ballots being “illegally counted”). Online trolls and Twitter bots shared the unfounded narrative. None of Bevin’s vague and varied claims were substantiated, and GOP leadership quickly called on Bevin to concede.