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Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth

The president has continued to claim voter fraud was a problem in the 2016 election. A look at the facts makes clear fraud is rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to necessary to “rig” an election.

Published: January 31, 2017

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Sensa­tion­al­ist claims have circu­lated this elec­tion season about the extent of voter fraud, with some politi­cians going so far as to tell voters to fear that this Novem­ber’s elec­tion will be “rigged.” Because elect­oral integ­rity is one of the elements neces­sary to making Amer­ica the greatest demo­cracy in the world, claims like this garner media atten­tion, and frighten and concern voters. But putting rhet­oric aside to look at the facts makes clear that fraud by voters at the polls is vanish­ingly rare, and does not happen on a scale even close to that neces­sary to “rig” an elec­tion.

Stud­ies Agree: Imper­son­a­tion Fraud by Voters Very Rarely Happens

  • The Bren­nan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most repor­ted incid­ents of voter fraud are actu­ally trace­able to other sources, such as cler­ical errors or bad data match­ing prac­tices. The report reviewed elec­tions that had been metic­u­lously stud­ied for voter fraud, and found incid­ent rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incid­ent rate for voter imper­son­a­tion fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an Amer­ican “will be struck by light­ning than that he will imper­son­ate another voter at the polls.”
  • A study published by a Columbia Univer­sity polit­ical scient­ist tracked incid­ence rates for voter fraud for two years, and found that the rare fraud that was repor­ted gener­ally could be traced to “false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and admin­is­trat­ive or voter error.”
  • A 2017 analysis published in The Wash­ing­ton Post concluded that there is no evid­ence to support Trump’s claim that Massachu­setts resid­ents were bused into New Hamp­shire to vote.
  • A compre­hens­ive 2014 study published in The Wash­ing­ton Post found 31 cred­ible instances of imper­son­a­tion fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. Even this tiny number is likely inflated, as the study’s author coun­ted not just prosec­u­tions or convic­tions, but any and all cred­ible claims.
  • Two stud­ies done at Arizona State Univer­sity, one in 2012 and another in 2016, found simil­arly negli­gible rates of imper­son­a­tion fraud. The project found 10 cases of voter imper­son­a­tion fraud nation­wide from 2000–2012. The follow-up study, which looked for fraud specific­ally in states where politi­cians have argued that fraud is a perni­cious prob­lem, found zero success­ful prosec­u­tions for imper­son­a­tion fraud in five states from 2012–2016.
  • A review of the 2016 elec­tion found four docu­mented cases of voter fraud. 
  • Research into the 2016 elec­tion found no evid­ence of wide­spread voter fraud.
  • 2016 work­ing paper concluded that the upper limit on double voting in the 2012 elec­tion was 0.02%. The paper noted that the incid­ent rate was likely much lower, given audits conduc­ted by the research­ers showed that “many, if not all, of these appar­ent double votes could be a result of meas­ure­ment error.”
  • A 2014 paper concluded that “the likely percent of non-citizen voters in recent US elec­tions is 0.”
  • A 2014 nation­wide study found “no evid­ence of wide­spread imper­son­a­tion fraud” in the 2012 elec­tion.
  • A 2014 study that examined imper­son­a­tion fraud both at the polls and by mail ballot found zero instances in the juris­dic­tions stud­ied.
  • A 2014 study by the non-partisan Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, which reflec­ted a liter­at­ure review of the exist­ing research on voter fraud, noted that the stud­ies consist­ently found “few instances of in-person voter fraud.”
  • While writ­ing a 2012 book, a researcher went back 30 years to try to find an example of voter imper­son­a­tion fraud determ­in­ing the outcome of an elec­tion, but was unable to find even one.
  • A 2012 study exhaust­ively pulled records from every state for all alleged elec­tion fraud, and found the over­all fraud rate to be “infin­ites­imal” and imper­son­a­tion fraud by voters at the polls to be the rarest fraud of all: only 10 cases alleged in 12 years. The same study found only 56 alleged cases of non-citizen voting, in 12 years.
  • A 2012 assess­ment of Geor­gi­a’s 2006 elec­tion found “no evid­ence that elec­tion fraud was commit­ted under the auspices of deceased regis­trants.”
  • A 2011 study by the Repub­lican National Lawyers Asso­ci­ation found that, between 2000 and 2010, 21 states had 1 or 0 convic­tions for voter fraud or other kinds of voting irreg­u­lar­it­ies.
  • A 2010 book cata­loguing repor­ted incid­ents of voter fraud concluded that nearly all alleg­a­tions turned out to be cler­ical errors or mistakes, not fraud.
  • A 2009 analysis examined 12 states and found that fraud by voters was “very rare,” and also concluded that many of the cases that garnered media atten­tion were ulti­mately unsub­stan­ti­ated upon further review.
  • Addi­tional research on noncit­izen voting can be found here: http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/analysis-noncit­izen-voting-vanish­ingly-rare.
  • Addi­tional resources can be found here: https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/analysis-and-reports.

Courts Agree: Fraud by Voters at the Polls is Nearly Non-Exist­ent

  • The Fifth Circuit, in an opin­ion find­ing that Texas’s strict photo ID law is racially discrim­in­at­ory, noted that there were “only two convic­tions for in-person voter imper­son­a­tion fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade” before Texas passed its law.
  • In its opin­ion strik­ing down North Caro­lin­a’s omni­bus restrict­ive elec­tion law —which included a voter ID require­ment — as purpose­fully racially discrim­in­at­ory, the Fourth Circuit noted that the state “failed to identify even a single indi­vidual who has ever been charged with commit­ting in-person voter fraud in North Caro­lina.”
  • A federal trial court in Wiscon­sin review­ing that state’s strict photo ID law found “that imper­son­a­tion fraud — the type of fraud that voter ID is designed to prevent — is extremely rare” and “a truly isol­ated phenomenon that has not posed a signi­fic­ant threat to the integ­rity of Wiscon­sin’s elec­tions.”
  • Even the Supreme Court, in its opin­ion in Craw­ford uphold­ing Indi­ana’s voter ID law, noted that the record in the case “contains no evid­ence of any [in-person voter imper­son­a­tion] fraud actu­ally occur­ring in Indi­ana at any time in its history.” Two of the jurists who weighed in on that case at the time — Repub­lican-appoin­ted former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and conser­vat­ive appel­late court Judge Richard Posner — have since announced they regret their votes in favor of the law, with Judge Posner noting that strict photo ID laws are “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppres­sion rather than of fraud preven­tion.”

Govern­ment Invest­ig­a­tions Agree: Voter Fraud Is Rare

  • Kansas Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach, a long­time proponent of voter suppres­sion efforts, argued before state lawmakers that his office needed special power to prosec­ute voter fraud, because he knew of 100 such cases in his state. After being gran­ted these powers, he has brought six such cases, of which only four have been success­ful. The secret­ary has also test­i­fied about his review of 84 million votes cast in 22 states, which yiel­ded 14 instances of fraud referred for prosec­u­tion, which amounts to a 0.00000017 percent fraud rate.
  • Texas lawmakers purpor­ted to pass its strict photo ID law to protect against voter fraud. Yet the chief law enforce­ment offi­cial in the state respons­ible for such prosec­u­tions knew of only one convic­tion and one guilty plea that involved in-person voter fraud in all Texas elec­tions from 2002 through 2014.
  • A special­ized United States Depart­ment of Justice unit formed with the goal of find­ing instances of federal elec­tion fraud examined the 2002 and 2004 federal elec­tions, and were able to prove that 0.00000013 percent of ballots cast were fraud­u­lent. There was no evid­ence that any of these incid­ents involved in-person imper­son­a­tion fraud. Over a five year period, they found “no concer­ted effort to tilt the elec­tion.”
  • An invest­ig­a­tion in Color­ado, in which the Secret­ary of State alleged 100 cases of voter fraud, yiel­ded one convic­tion.
  • In Maine, an invest­ig­a­tion into 200 college students revealed no evid­ence of fraud. Shortly there­after, an Elec­tions Commis­sion appoin­ted by a Repub­lican secret­ary of state found “there is little or no history in Maine of voter imper­son­a­tion or iden­ti­fic­a­tion fraud.” 
  • In Flor­ida, a crim­inal invest­ig­a­tion into nine indi­vidu­als who allegedly commit­ted absentee ballot fraud led to all crim­inal charges being dismissed against all voters.
  • In 2012, Flor­ida Governor Rick Scott initi­ated an effort to remove non-citizen regis­trants from the state’s rolls. The state’s list of 182,000 alleged non-citizen regis­trants quickly dwindled to 198. Even this amended list contained many false posit­ives, such as a WWII veteran born in Brook­lyn. In the end, only 85 non-citizen regis­trants were iden­ti­fied and only one was convicted of fraud, out of a total of 12 million registered voters.
  • In Iowa, a multi-year invest­ig­a­tion into fraud led to just 27 prosec­u­tions out of 1.6 million ballots cast. In 2014 the state issued a report on the invest­ig­a­tion citing only six prosec­u­tions.
  • In Wiscon­sin, a task force charged 20 indi­vidu­als with elec­tion crimes. The major­ity charged were indi­vidu­als with prior crim­inal convic­tions, who are often caught up by confus­ing laws regard­ing restor­a­tion of their voting rights.
     

The verdict is in from every corner that voter fraud is suffi­ciently rare that it simply could not and does not happen at the rate even approach­ing that which would be required to “rig” an elec­tion. Elect­oral integ­rity is key to our demo­cracy, and politi­cians who genu­inely care about protect­ing our elec­tions should focus not on phantom fraud concerns, but on those abuses that actu­ally threaten elec­tion secur­ity.

As histor­i­ans and elec­tion experts have cata­logued, there is a long history in this coun­try of racially suppress­ive voting meas­ures — includ­ing poll taxes and all-white primar­ies — put in place under the guise of stop­ping voter fraud that wasn’t actu­ally occur­ring in the first place. The surest way toward voting that is truly free, fair, and access­ible is to know the facts in the face of such rhet­oric.