The facts on voter fraud

This year, the Republican party platform included specific references to ‘honest elections,’ and suggested that voting rights lawsuits constitute ‘bullying.’ If you were to believe conservatives in the United States, you’d be forced to conclude that election fraud is a rampant epidemic with serious, long-reaching consequences, and that voter identification laws are key to putting a stop to it. So is that the case? You’ve probably heard liberals talking about how voter identification laws have a disproportionate impact on low-income people, people of colour, and disabled people, but do the ends justify the means? Are bleeding heart liberals enabling widespread election tampering?

Uh, no. We are not. A large number of researchers have explored this very question, and while it’s difficult to prove a negative, they’re repeatedly finding no evidence of voter fraud. Like at all. Or when they do identify suspect balloting, it’s often the result of an innocent error: For example, a clerk records a vote from John Doe, Jr. when it was really John Doe, Sr., or a matching system finds two Marys with the same birthday, but different middle and last names, and spits out a result suggesting that Mary Kate Jones (or is it Mary Gretchen Doe?) is registered to vote in two states.

There’s a funny problem that happens with facts: The blowback effect means that sometimes, someone spouts a loud of hooey, and you provide them with provable, demonstrated, peer-reviewed facts to contradict what they’re saying, and that makes them dig in harder. People tend to be primed with whatever they hear first and they cling to that myth long past the point when it’s very clear that they are very wrong. Conservatives present this problem of voter fraud because it justifies making it harder to vote, which tends to hurt Democrats and Independents more than it hurts Republicans. If anybody’s engaging in election tampering, it’s probably them.

But okay. You want some facts.

On cemetery voting. If you haven’t heard of ‘cemetery voting,’ don’t race out to the closest graveyard with your ballot in hand. It refers to voting under a dead person’s name before that person has been struck from the voter rolls, as would normally happen during a routine purge. So how many people are taking advantage of this brilliant loophole? In 2006, researchers tried to find evidence of the practice in Georgia and came up empty. In 2010, they did it again in North Carolina, and while they initially identified a number of suspicious ballots, it later turned out that most were either mis-recorded, or absentee ballots that voters had mailed in before they died. The handful that were still questionable couldn’t be resolved. The most obvious instance of this kind of fraud is actually kind of a bittersweet story: A Wisconsin man who filled out his deceased wife’s ballot in her honour and submitted it, because one of her last wishes was to vote for Barack Obama. Sweet, but still not legal, but also, not going to have an earthshaking impact on the electoral outcome in his district.

On voter impersonation. Leave your Groucho Marx glasses at home, my friends, because voter impersonation…kind of doesn’t happen. When the Government Accountability Office looked over records between 2004 and 2014, they found zero instances in which people were prosecuted for voter impersonation. It’s entirely possible that prosecutors identified cases they couldn’t, or declined to, pursue, and the GAO itself pointed out that without a central database of this kind of information, individual cases may slip through. It’s also entirely possible that some cases may have gone unidentified. The lack of prosecutions doesn’t mean it never happens, but means it’s rare enough that in a ten year period, no one was taken to court over it, which is pretty impressive.

On repeat and fraudulent vote casting. This is the big bugbear of voter ID law advocates — without showing ID, voters could go through again and again to pick up ballots, voting under the names of other people on the rolls. That…doesn’t happen. No, like seriously, it doesn’t happen. While the absence of evidence isn’t always evidence of absence, there’s a strong indicator here that if this behaviour does occur, it’s on such a lot background level that it makes absolutely no difference to the outcome of elections.

On voting when you’re not supposed to. In Iowa, a study found a handful of instances of voter fraud, none of which would have been prevented with ID laws. Many involved disenfranchised felons who either weren’t aware that they’re not supposed to vote, or decided to ignore the law and vote anyway.

There is a massive body of work on the subject of election fraud, voter ID, and other barriers to voting. What researchers keep finding is that election fraud is either nonexistent or statistically insignificant. And I know that ‘statistically insignificant’ means ‘it sometimes happens, yes,’ but it also means ‘it happens on such a low level that it doesn’t change the outcome of elections.’ It would be nice if we could categorically eliminate all election fraud ever, but it would also be nice if I could have a pony. It’s always going to happen to some degree, sometimes by genuine accident (I once almost voted in two counties!). The number of people disenfranchised by regressive ‘fraud prevention’ legislation far outweighs the number of cases of fraud, and in fact is significant enough to make a difference on election day. In the course of trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, Republicans are tampering with election results. And that’s exactly their goal.

Image: Voting, Justin Grimes, Flickr