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From what an outsider can understand of the contentious voter id and registration debates in the USA these are the arguments:

  • Democrats: "Voter ID and registration laws are just another tool to make it more difficult on purpose for some people to vote".

  • Republicans: "Voter ID and registration laws are necessary tools to combat voting fraud".

Both sides make widely differing claims about the level of fraud and the usefulness of said ID and registration laws. Depending on who you listen to there is either little fraud or lots of fraud.

However, US voting laws are largely managed at the state level. And states do occasionally have to take a much closer look at ballots cast, mostly during recounts.

So, did any trend become apparent during those recounts? Do states with stricter ID laws significantly limit fraud? Do states without those strict laws suffer much higher fraud? Do recounts not provide that information either way?

(To be clear: I am interested in both absolute and relative findings: 5 fraudulent votes out of 5 million is 60% more than 3 fraudulent votes out of 5 million. Which sounds significant, but neither will alter election outcomes. I believe I remember seeing an absolute number mentioned during one recount in the 2020 race, I'll substitute than rather than those fully-made up "stats").

Do any other opportunities to compare ballot integrity state-to-state, besides recounts, allow objective conclusions to be drawn about how the volume of electoral fraud is influenced by those laws?

Presumably, any detailed look at state-level elections, not just federal ones, should give the opportunity to compare those claims.

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    @user27954 which is precisely the point of my question. If, for example, Texas has little fraud and Massachusetts (going by the assumption it's a state that doesn't go out of its way to make voting complicated) has a lot then that's one finding supporting Republican claims. If neither state has significant fraud, then the Texas laws could be argued to be disproportionate. Jan 16 at 3:48
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    @user27954 I spray my apartment with elephant repellant. It must be working, no elephants have come into my home.
    – Barmar
    Jan 17 at 21:00
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    @barmar I never go anywhere without my anti-tiger rock
    – divibisan
    Jan 17 at 23:00
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    @user27954 If there were enough fraud to make a significant difference, it probably would be detectable. Ergo, if we can't detect it, it's unlikely to be worth all the effort to stop it. Of course, the proponents of these efforts will claim that any fraud is unacceptable and we must do whatever we can to prevent it. Funny thing is that these are the same people who won't do "whatever we can" to address COVID.
    – Barmar
    Jan 18 at 2:00
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    5 fraudulent votes is 67% more than 3 fraudulent votes, not 60% more. I'll also note that the political debate, both in reality and here on this site, sometimes suffers from confusion over the difference between proving identity and proving citizenship (or, more generally, eligibility to vote). Separating these concerns more carefully might help clarify the analysis of relevant data (along with other aspects of the debate), because they relate to different types of improper voting. Proving citizenship implies proving identity, but the reverse is not true.
    – phoog
    Jan 18 at 8:09

1 Answer 1

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Election fraud is vanishingly rare in all U.S. states. The evidence in support of this assertion is overwhelming.

The conservative Heritage Foundation identifies 1,340 instances of election fraud in the entire United States over forty years, at multiple levels of government (from 1982 to 2021), in a country where the popular vote in the most recent Presidential election in the year 2020 was 81,268,924 v. 74,216,154 (for a total of 155,485,078 votes cast in one election of many in the election cycles its statistic covers). It documents a fraud rate of less than one in hundred million votes cast in the United States.

The liberal Brennan Foundation identifies dozens of linked independent sources that corroborate the conclusion that voting fraud is negligible in the United States. Some of the court case decisions it notes are particularly relevant:

Even the Supreme Court, in its opinion in Crawford upholding Indiana’s voter ID law, noted that the record in the case “contains no evidence of any [in-person voter impersonation] fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.

The conservative leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion finding that Texas’s strict photo ID law is racially discriminatory, noted that there were “only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade” before Texas passed its law.

Similarly, it noted that:

A comprehensive 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. Even this tiny number is likely inflated, as the study’s author counted not just prosecutions or convictions, but any and all credible claims.

This is on the same order of magnitude as the Heritage Foundation count.

There were just four cases of documented voter fraud in the 2016 election in the entire United States.

In terms of materiality, the question is whether there was enough fraud in terms of falsely cast ballots or miscounting of ballots to change an election outcome in modern times (that was not prevented by being caught before the election results took effect). There are no examples of this happening in modern times in any U.S. elections.

An Associated Press review of the 2020 Presidential election found far fewer allegations of vote fraud (mostly claims that isolated individuals voting more than once) than needed to impact the outcome.

Claims of mass voter fraud rarely hold up to further investigation:

The review by Republican lawmakers in Michigan that found no systemic fraud cited various claims they had investigated. For example, senators were provided with a list of over 200 voters in Wayne County who were believed to be dead. Of these, the report noted, only two instances involved actual dead voters. The first was due to a clerical error in which a son had been confused with his dead father and the second involved a 92-year-old woman who had died four days before the election.

Similarly, in Pima County, Arizona, the local prosecutor received 151 complaints of voter fraud in the 2020 election, not one of which was substantiated and resulted in a criminal prosecution as the prosecutor closed the books on the last of those claims on January 14, 2021.

The kind of fraud that voter ID laws are targeted at is particularly rare.

Another 2020 academic study found that:

We estimate the change in the reported number of voter fraud cases when states switch to conducting elections by mail. We consider two types of states: states where a large number of voters receive their ballots by mail (receive-by-mail states, RBM) and a subset of these states where all registered voters are automatically sent ballots by mail (vote-by-mail states, VBM). We then compare the number of voter fraud cases in RBM (VBM) states to the number of cases in non-RBM (non-VBM) states, using two approaches standard in the social sciences. We find no evidence that voting by mail increases the risk of voter fraud overall. Since 2016, RBM (VBM) states have reported similar fraud rates to non-RBM (non-VBM) states. Moreover, we estimate Washington would have reported eighty more cases of fraud had it not introduced its VBM law in 2011. While our analysis of the data considers only two of many possible approaches, we argue our findings are unlikely were fraud more common when elections are held by mail.

Far more distortion of electoral outcomes is due to people accidentally not marking a vote in a race where they intended to do so due to poor ballot design, accidentally marking more than two candidates in a single candidate race, due to erroneous failure to count valid provisional ballots, and due to people mistakenly believing that they were not allowed to vote when in fact they were allowed to vote.

So, did any trend become apparent during those recounts?

No.

Perhaps the most notable instance of election fraud in recent years was in the 2018 Congressional midterm election in North Carolina where allies of a Republican candidate, Mark Harris (who did not run in the following special election) engaged in election fraud and were caught after an initial count was made, resulting in a special election conducted after the original election was not certified (this is a state with strong voter ID requirements and anti-fraud oriented laws).

Anecdotally, there has been a trend towards voter fraud being conducted mostly by older Republican loyalists who convince themselves contrary to all evidence that voter fraud by Democrats is widespread and want to "level the playing field" for their candidates. But, these cases are so rare, it is hard to say that any of the data is really statistically significant in establishing trends one way or the other.

For example, four voters in a Florida retirement village that was a Republican stronghold (two registered as Republicans and two unaffiliated) were charged with voter fraud in late 2021 and early 2022.

Similarly, in another case from the 2020 election:

Hartle was married to Las Vegas businessman Donald Kirk Hartle, a registered Republican. In November 2020, Hartle told Las Vegas television station 8 News Now (KLAS-TV) that he felt "disbelief" when he found out that a mail-in ballot was submitted in his late wife's name. It was "pretty sickening," he said at the time, adding that he didn't know how it could've happened. But Hartle had actually cast the phony ballot himself.

Here are a couple of other representative cases:

In southeast Pennsylvania, 72-year-old Ralph Thurman, a registered Republican, was sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading guilty to one count of repeat voting.

Donald Holz is among the five people in Wisconsin who face voter fraud charges. He said all he wanted to do was vote for Trump. But because he was still on parole after being convicted of felony drunken driving, the 63-year-old retiree was not eligible to do so.

Then there was this case out of Colorado arising from the 2016 election:

Colorado prosecutors can charge people with misdemeanor mail ballot offenses and felony forgery at the same time, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.

In a voter fraud case involving a former Colorado Republican Party chairman and conservative radio host, a three-judge panel set precedent in ruling that prosecutors were not wrong to charge Steven Curtis with violating laws outside of the state’s mail ballot statute for voting twice in the same election. . . .

Curtis, 61, was sentenced to four years probation and 300 hours of community service in 2018 for voting twice in the 2016 general election.

That happened when Curtis filled out, signed and mailed his former wife’s mail-in ballot after doing his own, forging his wife’s signature in the process. Prosecutors became aware of that when his former wife, Kelly Curtis, who had moved to South Carolina a year earlier, contacted the Weld County Clerk’s Office to get her mail-in ballot, and was told that she had already voted.

DNA evidence showed that Curtis had sealed the ballot return envelope, and handwriting samples showed he filled out the return address and signed his ex-wife’s name, the ruling said.

Another Colorado case suggests a psychology behind a recent surge of Republican election fraud (although still tiny and immaterial relative to the number of votes cast):

Suzanne Morphew hasn't been seen in a year, and last week, her husband, Barry Morphew, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. That's obviously tragic enough on its own, but what followed were additional charges for casting an illegal vote.

According to the local reporting, last October, Barry Morphew also allegedly submitted a ballot on behalf of the wife he allegedly killed. Her ballot was submitted without a signature -- a requirement in Colorado's vote-by-mail system -- but it did include his name as a witness.

According to the arrest affidavit, asked why he submitted the ballot for his missing-and-presumed-dead wife, Barry Morphew said, "Just because I wanted Trump to win.... I just thought give him [Trump] another vote."

He added, according to the affidavit, that he believed "all these other guys are cheating."

The Republican Clerk and Recorder of Mesa County, Colorado (a conservative county in Colorado where that post is the top county election official in ordinary times), Tina Peters, was suspended from her elect administration duties by a court and is currently facing a grand jury investigation for election administration misconduct (not necessarily changing any votes).

Do states with stricter ID laws significantly limit fraud?

No.

Do states without those strict laws suffer much higher fraud?

No. For example, an analysis of the Heritage Foundation voter fraud database found that there were extremely low rates of voter fraud in the five states with universal mail in voting (less than one case per million votes cast by mail).

Do recounts not provide that information either way?

State recounts provide some information but not a whole lot. One study reviewed all

5,778 statewide general elections from 2000 to 2019, and found that recounts occurred 31 times (0.54 percent). . . . The average shift across all recounts was 430 votes, which accounted for 0.024 percent of the statewide vote in those races.

(This is an average shift in 1/4667th of the statewide vote).

Three of the 31 recounts resulted in a reversal of the original election result. In each case, a Democratic candidate overcame an initial vote deficit to defeat the Republican candidate. The three recounts averaged a vote swing of 393 votes.

  1. U.S. Senate in Minnesota, 2008 Al Franken (D) Initial count -215, final count +225, vote swing: 440. (Details here).

  2. Vermont State Auditor, 2006 Thomas Salmon (D) initial count -102, final count +239, vote swing 349 (Details at the New York Times).

  3. Governor of Washington, 2004 Christine Gregoire (D) Initial count -261, final count +129, vote swing 390 (Details here).

Often, a major source of shifted vote counts in a recount involves provisional ballots that were disallowed in the original count that are allowed after further examination determines that the provisional ballots were validly cast in a recount, or undisputed ballots that weren't included in a vote count by accident.

Do any other opportunities to compare ballot integrity state-to-state, besides recounts, allow objective conclusions to be drawn about how the volume of electoral fraud is influenced by those laws?

There is no statistically significant connection between the existence of anti-fraud laws and the volume of election fraud by voters or purported voters (or in vote counting) in particular states.

Historical Note

This was not always true in the United States.

Election fraud was commonplace in the U.S. in the era of "political party machines" in the late 1800s and early 1900s, ending about a century ago with reforms to the system such as the demise of patronage jobs in favor of civil service systems, with further progress made with the end of prohibition in 1933 that also reduced government corruption more generally in the United States.

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    It's a good answer, with sources from both ends of the political spectrum. However, if you're trying to say that voter fraud is more common by Republican voters, including the number of Republican voter fraud as opposed to Democrat's voter fraud would be far more convincing than bringing anecdotes from MSNBC and the like. After all, Fox news has also reported on Democrat's voter fraud.
    – user41637
    Jan 18 at 5:02
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    I see that the 5th circuit opinion you link to resulted from a hearing before 15 judges, while the court's website lists 26; is it possible that this subset of the court is liberal-leaning?
    – phoog
    Jan 18 at 8:07
  • @phoog That possibility is highly unlikely in any en banc ruling.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 18 at 17:13
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    @user27954 I am mostly relying for anecdotes on Associated Press reporting and the Grand Junction Sentinel. Most of the stories were covered by multiple outlets. I don't claim a trend but also have seen very few credible cases of Democratic voter fraud in the last few years. Fox News is not a reliable source of factual reporting. It has admitted as much in court pleadings in defamation cases.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 18 at 17:17
  • @ohwilleke I wouldn't call other news sources more reliable than Fox news. I'm also not entirely sure what you'd call credible cases of Democratic voter fraud. Some might argue that the cases mentioned in your answer aren't credible. I'm not familiar with the cases you're referring to, but I seem to recall a similar story with a major left-wing media personality. Her defense was that no one believes her anyway. If it's true, then false reporting is not unique to Fox News. Several major media outlets are guilty of false reporting (i.e. Trump-Georgia story - Washington Post, etc.)
    – user41637
    Jan 18 at 18:21

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