The Voter Fraud Myth

In 2012 Minnesota voters overwhelmingly rejected a Voter ID constitutional amendment. However, similar voter suppression succeeded in other states. A presidential commission is now developing recommendations to change the National Voter Registration Act, which is also expected to have the effect of suppressing voter participation, particularly in communities of color, low income communities, and among young and older voters. Key legislative leaders in Minnesota have stated the goal of enacting Voter ID through legislation rather than constitutional amendment. The rationale set forth for making these changes at the state and national levels is voter fraud.

The Voter Fraud Myth

Intro By Bob Tracy
Article By Lorraine C. Minnite

Are fraudulent voters undermining U.S. elections? The simple answer is no. Rather, the threat comes from the myth of voter fraud used to justify rules that restrict full and equal voting rights.

In a democracy, reducing access to the ballot is difficult to justify. Political motives and strategies to discourage voting by particular groups, such as racial minorities, cannot be openly announced. That’s where the myth of criminal voters comes in—as proponents of new rules cite the supposed threat of votes fraudulently cast by foreigners, non-citizens, immigrants, felons and imposters who allegedly vote in many precincts. Mythical threats that stoke social prejudices are used to make new restrictions seem reasonable.

Reliable social scientific research on voter fraud is difficult to conduct because there are no officially compiled national or state statistics on the crime. Researchers must painstakingly piece together evidence from news reports, court proceedings, law enforcement agencies, election officials and interviews with experts and other sources.

After ten years of such research (see The Myth of Voter Fraud, published in 2010 by Cornell University Press), I found that intentional fraud by individual voters is exceedingly rare. For example, under President George W. Bush, the U.S. Justice Department launched a program to search vigorously for voter fraud. The first three years of the program covered two federal election cycles. Over that period just 26 people were convicted or pled guilty to illegal registration or voting. There were 197,056,035 votes cast in those two federal elections, yielding a miniscule rate of voter fraud of 0.00000132 percent of all votes cast.

Individual Voters Don’t Cheat

Other investigations by political scientists, journalists and voting rights groups since 2010 have reached the same conclusion. For example:

  • The Washington Post conducted a systematic search of news sources for cases of voter impersonation in the 2016 election and found four invalid votes out of 136,700,729 votes cast. Similarly, a statistical analysis by political scientists at Dartmouth College of 2016 county-level voting patterns found “no evidence that could support anything like Trump’s accusations” that three to five million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election.
     
  • Replicating the methodology I used in The Myth of Voter Fraud, 24 journalism students at 12 universities reviewed 2,068 alleged cases of election fraud drawn from documents obtained through public records requests in all 50 states. Their study found just nine cases of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2012. The same reporting project later analyzed fraud allegations in five states (Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Texas) “where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud” between 2012 and 2016 and found no cases of voter impersonation over the four-year period.
     
  • In litigation challenging new voter identification laws in Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, courts found little to no evidence of voter fraud. Plaintiffs in Indiana and Pennsylvania stipulated in court that they could find no record of any instance of voter impersonation fraud as far back as their records allowed. 
     
  • State investigations of alleged voter fraud in Colorado, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maine, Texas and New Hampshire, among other states, have documented a handful of actual cases and very few convictions, despite allegations that hundreds of thousands of non-citizens and other illegal voters were registering and casting ballots. For example, in 2012, in Florida, Governor Rick Scott alleged there were 182,000 non-citizens on the voter rolls. Following an investigation, the list dwindled to 198, and then to 85, with just one person convicted of fraud out of a total of 12 million registered voters.
     
  • When federal authorities challenged voter identification laws in South Carolina and Texas, neither state could provide any evidence of voter impersonation or any other type of fraud that could be deterred by requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls.

Now Gutted Voting Rights Act Prevented Voter Fraud

When there has been election fraud in American elections, it has usually been committed by politicians, party operatives and election officials who have something big at stake in electoral outcomes. Voters rarely commit fraud because for them, it is a motiveless crime; individual benefits to a fraudulent voter are immaterial, while the costs are prohibitive.

The most important illustration of outright corruption of elections is the century-long success of white supremacists in the American South after the Civil War to strip black men of their right to vote. Elites and party bosses in the North followed the southern example, using some of the same tricks to manipulate electoral rules and outcomes to disfranchise immigrants and the urban poor.

From this perspective, the impact of election fraud on American elections has been massive. It was only with the rise of the Black Freedom Movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that the tricks and political chicanery were halted. In fact, according to the political historian J. Morgan Kousser, the Voting Rights Act was the most important fraud-prevention legislation ever passed.

In response to these victories, a reactionary movement arose to push back against progress in civil rights and counter the thrust toward a more equal society. Over the last 40 years, that movement has made important gains, especially in the courts, where a conservative Supreme Court (in a 2013 case called Shelby County v. Holder) gutted one of the most effective features of the Voting Rights Act—the “preclearance” formula which forced states and localities with the most egregious histories of vote denial to obtain permission from the Justice Department before putting new election rules in place.

Prior to the 2000 presidential election, only 14 states requested or required voters to show some form of identification at the polls. Since then, the number of states requiring ID to vote has more than doubled, and the forms of acceptable identification have narrowed. In what is likely no coincidence, the rate at which states have adopted tougher photo identification requirements accelerated with the election of the nation’s first black president and the demise of legally-mandated federal oversight in the Shelby case.

Fixing Real Election Problems

Spurious, politically-motivated allegations of voter fraud are a distraction from the real problems in U.S. elections. Overly complicated rules need to be simplified and election administration professionalized. Nonpartisan officials and poll workers must be well-trained and supported in their efforts to help people cast ballots that are accurately counted. In every major election, millions of eligible Americans do not participate, in large part because of unnecessary hurdles to registration and voting. The United States needs a reinvigorated movement to expand voting rights and access. To build confidence in our democracy, we should look for ways to fix actual election problems—and recognize that individual voter fraud is not one of them.

Lorraine Carol Minnite is a professor of political science and an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden. She is the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud and Keeping Down the Black Vote: Race and the Demobilization of American Voters.

 

Minnesota Council on Foundations advocates for public policies that promote philanthropy and charitable giving and for those that promote prosperity through inclusion and equity. As part of advancing its inclusion and equity policy goal, MCF advocates for policies that strengthen democratic systems and civic engagement, including the expansion and protection of voting rights. Read more about MCF’s public policy advocacy agenda.