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Policy Brief on the Truth About “Voter Fraud”

Fraud by individual voters is both irrational and extremely rare. Raising the unsubstantiated specter of mass voter fraud suits a particular policy agenda.

Published: September 12, 2006

As the lead­ing demo­cracy of the world, our voting system should be free, fair, and access­ible to all eligible Amer­ic­ans. It’s import­ant to protect the integ­rity of our elec­tions and stop voter fraud. But we should not be making it harder for millions of eligible Amer­ic­ans to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy.

Summary

  • Fraud by indi­vidual voters is both irra­tional and extremely rare.
  • Many vivid anec­dotes of purpor­ted voter fraud have been proven false or do not demon­strate fraud.
  • Voter fraud is often conflated with other forms of elec­tion miscon­duct.
  • Rais­ing the unsub­stan­ti­ated specter of mass voter fraud suits a partic­u­lar policy agenda.
  • Claims of voter fraud should be care­fully tested before they become the basis for action.

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Fraud by indi­vidual voters is both irra­tional and extremely rare. Most citizens who take the time to vote offer their legit­im­ate signa­tures and sworn oaths with the grav­itas that this hard-won civic right deserves. Even for the few who view voting merely as a means to an end, however, voter fraud is a singu­larly fool­ish way to attempt to win an elec­tion. Each act of voter fraud risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine – but yields at most one incre­mental vote. The single vote is simply not worth the price.

Because voter fraud is essen­tially irra­tional, it is not surpris­ing that no cred­ible evid­ence suggests a voter fraud epidemic. There is no docu­mented wave or trend of indi­vidu­als voting multiple times, voting as someone else, or voting despite know­ing that they are ineligible. Indeed, evid­ence from the micro­scop­ic­ally scru­tin­ized 2004 gubernat­orial elec­tion in Wash­ing­ton State actu­ally reveals just the oppos­ite: though voter fraud does happen, it happens approx­im­ately 0.0009% of the time. The simil­arly closely-analyzed 2004 elec­tion in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004%. National Weather Service data shows that Amer­ic­ans are struck and killed by light­ning about as often.

Many vivid anec­dotes of purpor­ted voter fraud have been proven false or do not demon­strate fraud. Although there are a few scattered instances of real voter fraud, many of the vivid anec­dotes cited in accounts of voter fraud have been proven false or vastly over­stated. In Missouri in 2000, for example, the Secret­ary of State claimed that 79 voters were registered with addresses at vacant lots, but subsequent invest­ig­a­tion revealed that the lots in ques­tion actu­ally housed valid and legit­im­ate resid­ences. Simil­arly, a 1995 invest­ig­a­tion into votes allegedly cast in Baltimore by deceased voters and those with disen­fran­chising felony convic­tions revealed that the voters in ques­tion were both alive and felony-free.

Many of the inac­cur­ate claims result from lists of voters compared to other lists – of deceased indi­vidu­als, persons with felony convic­tions, voters in other states, etc. These attempts to match inform­a­tion often yield predict­able errors. In Flor­ida in 2000, a list of purged voters later became notori­ous when it was discovered that the “match­ing” process captured eligible voters with names similar to – but decidedly differ­ent from – the names of persons with felony convic­tions, some­times in other states entirely. A 2005 attempt to identify supposed double voters in New Jersey mistakenly accused people with similar names but whose middle names or suffixes were clearly differ­ent, such as “J.T. Kearns, Jr.” and “J.T. Kearns, Sr.,” of being the same person. Even when names and birth­d­ates match across lists, that does not mean there was voter fraud. Element­ary stat­ist­ics students are often surprised to learn that it is more likely than not that among just 23 indi­vidu­als, two will share a birth­day. Similar stat­ist­ics show that for most reas­on­ably common names, it is extremely likely that at least two people with the same name in a state will share the same date of birth. The ostens­ible “matches” may not repres­ent the same person at all.

Other alleg­a­tions of fraud­u­lent voting often turn out to be the result of common cler­ical errors, incom­plete inform­a­tion, or faulty assump­tions. Most alleg­a­tions of voter fraud simply evap­or­ate when more rigor­ous analysis is conduc­ted.

Voter fraud is often conflated with other forms of elec­tion miscon­duct. It is extremely rare for indi­vidu­als to vote multiple times, vote as someone else, or vote despite know­ing that they are ineligible. These rare occur­rences, however, are often conflated with other forms of elec­tion irreg­u­lar­it­ies or miscon­duct, under the mislead­ing and over­broad label of “voter fraud.u201D Some of these other irreg­u­lar­it­ies result from honest mistakes by elec­tion offi­cials or voters, such20as confu­sion as to whether a partic­u­lar person is actu­ally eligible to vote. Some irreg­u­lar­it­ies result from tech­no­lo­gical glitches, whether sinis­ter or benign: for example, voting machines may record inac­cur­ate tallies. And some involve fraud or inten­tional miscon­duct perpet­rated by actors other than indi­vidual voters: for example, flyers may spread misin­form­a­tion about the proper loca­tions or proced­ures for voting; thugs may be dispatched to intim­id­ate voters at the polls; miss­ing ballot boxes may myster­i­ously reappear. These more common forms of miscon­duct are simply not addressed by the supposed “anti-fraud” meas­ures gener­ally proposed.

Rais­ing the unsub­stan­ti­ated specter of mass voter fraud suits a partic­u­lar policy agenda. Voter fraud is most often invoked as a substan­tial prob­lem in order to justify partic­u­lar elec­tion policies. Chief among these is the proposal that indi­vidu­als be required to show photo ID in order to vote – a policy that disen­fran­chises up to 10% of eligible citizens. But the only miscon­duct that photo ID addresses is the kind of voter fraud that happens as infre­quently as death by light­ning. There­fore, it suits those who prefer photo ID as a policy to lump as much miscon­duct in with “voter fraud” as possible, to create the impres­sion that the prob­lem is far more signi­fic­ant than it actu­ally is. Moreover, to the extent photo ID is sugges­ted as a solu­tion to the percep­tion that voter fraud occurs, it behooves those who prefer photo ID to rein­force the unsub­stan­ti­ated percep­tion that voter fraud exists.

Claims of voter fraud should be care­fully tested before they become the basis for action. Research­ers, report­ers, public figures, and poli­cy­makers confron­ted with claims of poten­tial fraud should care­fully exam­ine these claims before call­ing for action. Do the claims depend on match­ing inform­a­tion from one list to another? Is the match­ing process accur­ate? Does a match indic­ate an illegal vote, or is there a more plaus­ible explan­a­tion? Is corrob­or­at­ing evid­ence avail­able? If there actu­ally appears to be a prob­lem, can it be addressed by exist­ing prac­tices, or is a new solu­tion neces­sary? If so, will the solu­tion proposed – usually either a mass purge or photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion – really solve the prob­lem? Is the solu­tion suffi­ciently burden­some that it becomes a greater prob­lem than the prob­lem itself? These basic ques­tions are crucially import­ant to eval­u­at­ing claims of voter fraud, but are all too often unasked and unanswered.


THE WORK OF THE BREN­NAN CENTER

  • National. Follow­ing the report of the 2005 Commis­sion on Federal Elec­tion Reform (the “Carter-Baker Commis­sion"), the Bren­nan Center and Commis­sioner Spen­cer Over­ton prepared a detailed analysis of claims of voter fraud, in the context of a proposed photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion require­ment.
  • Geor­gia. In Octo­ber 2005, a Geor­gia federal court enjoined imple­ment­a­tion of a law requir­ing photo ID. On appeal, the Bren­nan Center filed an amicus brief, arguing that the threat of imper­son­a­tion fraud, which the law purpor­ted to combat, is extremely rare and could not justify the ID require­ment.
  • Indi­ana. In 2006, the Bren­nan Center filed an amicus brief with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, present­ing evid­ence that imper­son­a­tion fraud is an extremely unlikely and unsub­stan­ti­ated occur­rence. The brief also cata­logued prac­tices in other states that effect­ively curbed elec­tion fraud without resort­ing to restrict­ive iden­ti­fic­a­tion require­ments.
  • New Jersey. In 2005, a list of purpor­ted and poten­tial fraud­u­lent votes was delivered to the state Attor­ney General, with a demand that the voter rolls be purged. Together with a prom­in­ent polit­ical scient­ist, the Bren­nan Center demon­strated the flaws in the match­ing process used to gener­ate the list, and proved that the vast major­ity of alleg­a­tions in fact yiel­ded no reason for concern.