• on April 22, 2020

Voter Fraud: Debunking the Myths

Voter Fraud allegations are a favorite excuse for people when their preferred party loses. In some cases, as in 2016, candidates might even preemptively throw out accusations in case they do lose. While voter fraud certainly has happened before, and will again in the future, it tends to be on a very small scale, with no discernible effect on actual results. The bigger danger is that people will use the specter of voter fraud either to disenfranchise lawful voters, or else to cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections. This is especially true when it comes to vote-by-mail.

As vote-by-mail initiatives gain momentum amid the ongoing dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, claims and talk of voter fraud will continue to increase in 2020, as some claim that vote-by-mail leads to increased rates of voter fraud. Despite what some politicians and media outlets say, the risk of voter fraud in the United States is very low and will remain low even as vote-by-mail expands across the country.

Elections are the cornerstone of American democracy and a key aspect of the nation’s founding and history. In order for elections to be meaningful, voters must be confident in the integrity of the electoral process. When elections are free and fair, Americans can have certainty that their leaders were chosen by the people. However, if elections are corrupted, Americans will not know if their leaders were duly elected and may lose confidence in the voting system, the government, and their very power of self-governance.

That is why we must always take steps to secure our elections and protect against voter fraud. With that said, there are many baseless claims about our elections and the threat that voter fraud poses. 

What is voter fraud?

Voter fraud, or election fraud, is the illegal interference with an election. There are various ways to interfere in an election, including stuffing ballot boxes, changing vote totals, or seeking the help of foreign influence campaigns.

A successful election fraud effort represents a failure at several levels of the voting process. While wide scale voter fraud is nearly non-existent in the United States, it is a serious problem in developing democracies and a favorite tactic of authoritarians holding on to power all across the world.

How common is voter fraud in the United States?

While the United States should always be on guard against voter fraud efforts, such efforts are rarely successful. This is in part because US institutions and election oversight are so strong. It is extremely difficult to commit voter fraud in the United States, and those that do are often easy to catch.

Many pundits, commentators, and media outlets like to claim that voter fraud is common in the United States. These claims are baseless at best and dangerous at worst. Allegations of mass voter fraud are not backed by data or history, and serve only to create fear and mistrust among US voters. The truth is voter fraud is very rare in the United States.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and opponent of vote-by-mail initiatives, compiled a list of voter fraud cases in the US beginning around 1948. Of all the federal elections held since 1948 – and billions of votes cast – The Heritage Foundation only found 1,277 cases of voter fraud. Nearly all reported cases of voter fraud in the US involve an individual voting when it was illegal for them to do so, not widespread efforts to sway an election. Claims that millions of “illegal immigrants,” or others, illegally voted in recent elections are false. The truth is, there is zero evidence to support those claims.

What is being done to prevent voter fraud?

While each state has its own way of running elections, all states have several safeguards to protect against voter fraud. Many states use paper ballots or keep a paper trail of the votes to give the voter the certainty that their vote is accurately counted, and every state requires you to register before voting. Paper ballots and paper records also protect against hacking and other forms of election interference. Voters can only receive absentee ballots (mail ballots) when they are properly registered. Should voters vote-by-mail, they are not allowed to vote at a physical voting location. If they try to, their vote at the polling location is not counted.

Does vote-by-mail increase the risk of voter fraud?

The history of voting by mail in the United States is long, stretching back to the Civil War. In the 2016 presidential election, 57.2 million Americans, or about two in five of all voters, voted early, absentee, or by mail. 

While no voting method is immune from some limited cases of voter fraud, voting by mail does not lead to widespread increases in voter fraud. States like Colorado, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington almost exclusively use mail-in ballots and rarely see any cases of voter fraud. According to The Heritage Foundation, Hawaii, Utah, and Washington have had no cases of fraudulent uses of absentee ballots (mail ballots) since they shifted to conducting their elections almost entirely by mail. Colorado has only had three cases of fraudulent use of absentee ballots since the state shifted to conducting its elections almost entirely by mail in 2013.

To protect against mail ballot fraud, the voter’s signature on the back of the mail ballot needs to match their signature on their voter registration file. In Colorado, the state uses a computer program to match the signatures. In other states, poll workers are required to match the signatures. One challenge to signature matching is that it can sometimes lead to valid ballots being tossed out because of a perceived mismatch. To prevent this from occurring, states should notify voters if their vote was not counted and give voters an adequate amount of time to cast a valid ballot.

Trump’s voter fraud committee:

Despite winning the 2016 presidential election, President Trump failed to win the popular vote. He had approximately three million fewer votes than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This disparity in vote totals led him to make outrageous claims of widespread voter fraud, claiming that millions of “illegal immigrants” voted illegally in the 2016 election.

In an attempt to prove his claims, he established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in May 2017. The group investigated purported cases of fraud in several states but was plagued by organizational issues and legal troubles. This group was disbanded less than a year after its creation, having turned up no evidence of widespread voter fraud or evidence that millions of “illegal immigrants” voted illegally in the 2016 election.

The most recent and well-known case of voter fraud came in 2018 at the hands of a Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, in North Carolina. Dowless was arrested in 2019 and charged with multiple counts related to illegal ballot handling in elections in 2016 and 2018. Dowless worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris, who in 2018, was running for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District seat. Dowless and his associates collected ballots from voters, filled in the votes, and then submitted the votes in such a way that they temporarily avoided detection.

Because of robust oversight and effective investigations, Dowless and Harris’ scheme was thwarted and the election results were not certified, resulting in a new election.

Debunking Trump’s claims about voter fraud and vote-by-mail:

Recently, President Trump has been attacking vote-by-mail, claiming it will lead to widespread fraud. One of his biggest complaints is about ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is the collection of voters’ ballots by volunteers or workers, who then deposit the ballots en masse at official voting sites. The intended purpose behind ballot harvesting is to help people vote. Some Americans have trouble leaving their home to vote, usually due to health complications. Ballot harvesting allows these Americans to vote without leaving their home. Ballot harvesting can lead to different forms of voter fraud, as volunteers or workers who collect the ballots may seek to illegally influence the voters’ decision. For this reason, ballot harvesting is illegal in many states.

Vote-by-mail initiatives allow voters to vote from their home and then mail their ballot back or drop it off at a designated ballot drop box. Some vote-by-mail ballots even come with pre-paid postage, so that voters do not need to worry about paying for or acquiring their own stamps. By providing voters with pre-paid postage, there will no longer be a need for volunteers to go door-to-door collecting ballots. If voters have access to mail voting with pre-paid postage, voter fraud schemes, like the one orchestrated by Leslie McCrae Dowless, will be more difficult to execute, making US elections safer.

Some Republicans believe that vote-by-mail will hurt the party politically and for this reason discourage its use. Mail voting is convenient not just for Democrats but for Republicans as well. It makes voting easier for all voters, from the elderly to busy workers. President Trump himself recently voted by mail in Florida’s primary. If vote-by-mail is good enough for the president, it is good enough for the American people.

100 million Americans are eligible to vote but choose not to vote in each election. Researchers at the Knight Foundation surveyed non-voters and found that while the reason these Americans choose to sit out each election differs widely, many do not feel that their vote will matter or do not feel informed enough to decide who to vote for. The Knight Foundation found in their study that non-voters would be split almost evenly between the two major parties. Mail voting would likely increase turnout for both active and inactive voters alike, evenly helping both parties.

President Trump’s assault on vote-by-mail continues in his speeches and campaign emails. He is priming his supporters to question the validity of this year’s election, falsely suggesting that Democrats are trying to steal the election through various forms of voter fraud. The stakes for free and fair elections may have never been higher.

While voter fraud is possible in any election, using any voting method, the US has a long and proud history of free and fair elections, with very few cases of voter fraud. US rules and institutions protect American voters and elections from voter fraud. Those few who try committing voter fraud are often easily caught. As illustrated, mail voting is not more susceptible to voter fraud and may in fact protect against certain types of voter fraud.


Take Action

We need your help. Congress needs to know that voters are concerned about the safety of our elections this November. Tell your members of Congress that we need them to appropriate funds to help states expand mail voting to make our elections safer. 


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