Analysis: Heritage Foundation's Database Undermines Claims of Recent Voter Fraud

September 8, 2017

New York, N.Y. –  The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity relies on a database produced by the Heritage Foundation to justify baseless claims — by President Trump and some of the panel’s members — of rampant voter fraud. But according to an analysis of the database by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the numbers in the database reveal exactly the opposite.
 
Claims that the database contains almost 1,100 proven instances of voter fraud are grossly exaggerated and devoid of context, according to Heritage Fraud Database: An Assessment. It confirms what numerous studies have consistently shown: Voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and impersonating a voter at the polls is less common a phenomenon than being struck by lightning.
 
“The database includes an assortment of cases, many unrelated or tangentially related, going back decades, with only a handful pertaining to non-citizens voting or impersonation at the polls,” writes the author. “They add up to a molecular fraction of the total votes cast nationwide. Inadvertently, the Heritage Foundation’s database undermines its claim of widespread voter fraud.

A closer examination of the database shows:

  • Among the examples in the Heritage document are a case from 1948 (when Harry S. Truman beat Thomas Dewey) and a case from 1972 (when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern). Only 105 of its 749 cases came from within the past five years.
  • In reviewing billions of votes cast, the Heritage Foundation identified just 10 cases involving in-person impersonation fraud at the polls (fewer than the number of members on the president’s Commission).
  • The database includes only 41 cases involving non-citizens registering, voting, or attempting to vote over five decades, highlighting the absurdity of President Trump’s claim that millions of non-citizens voted in the 2016 election alone.
  • A vast majority of fraud “examples” cited by the Heritage Foundation would not be addressed by the voter suppression laws its staff supports, including “Election Integrity” Commission member Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at Heritage. Von Spakovsky distributed copies of the database at the panel’s first meeting in July.
  • Many cases highlighted in the database show that existing laws and safeguards are already preventing voter fraud — the ineligible voters or individuals engaging in misconduct were discovered and prevented from casting a ballot.

“It’s been clear for months that this Commission is premised on the lie that widespread voter fraud exists in America. This database is the latest attempt by some of the Commission’s members to propagate that lie,” said Rudy Mehrbani, Spitzer fellow and senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and lead author of the analysis. “A quick dive into Heritage’s database reveals a completely different picture than the top-line talking point suggests, and the consequences to voters could be severe.”    
 
“It is distressing that a Commission whose work could affect Americans’ most fundamental rights is promoting and relying on spin rather than legitimate, accepted, and professionally-reviewed research,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “It couldn’t be clearer that the Commission is not approaching its charge with an open mind. The primary sources of alleged evidence of widespread fraud are the commissioners themselves.”
 
“This ‘database’ does not come close to being an actual study of election misconduct on which national policy should be based,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center. “It is a grab-bag of cases, few of them recent, many irrelevant to the panel’s work. Waving around a stack of paper does not make it real evidence.”
 
For more on the president’s “Election Integrity” Commission, visit the Brennan Center’s one-stop-shop resource page here.
 
For more on the Center’s work on voting rights and elections, click here.

To schedule an interview or connect with a Brennan Center expert, contact Rebecca Autrey at rebecca.autrey@nyu.edu or 646-292-8316.

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