Over the past few years, the news has been full of claims of voter fraud: vague and terrifying allegations that the American electoral process has been undermined by deliberate efforts to subvert the system. “Voter fraud” evokes the image of people who are ineligible to vote – because they are felons or illegal immigrants, or because they are pretending to be someone else – casting ballots and thus swaying an election. President Trump even convened a commission, under the leadership of Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to investigate allegations of voter fraud. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was formed on May 11, 2017 and was dissolved on January 3, 2018. The White House claimed that the Commission was disbanded because states refused to cooperate with the Commission’s investigations and threatened to mire the process in litigation. In the end, the Commission was unable to support claims of widespread voter fraud.
The term “voter fraud,” which suggests deliberate deception, is often conflated with other systemic problems that don’t rise to the level of fraud. For example, a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center discovered that one out of every eight registrations was inaccurate and that voting rolls included nearly two million people who were deceased. However, the Center attributed the problems to an outdated and inefficient voter registration system rather than fraud. In fact, the Center suggested that the problem was not too many voters but too few: the survey found that one in four eligible voters was not registered to vote. Another 2012 investigation into voter fraud, this time by News21, found that most cases of “fraud” were actually mistakes, for example when an elderly North Carolina voter got a second ballot after turning in his incomplete first ballot, or when a voter who moved to a new residence thought that he had to vote at both his old address and his new one. The News21 investigation identified only ten credible cases of voter fraud in a ten-year period.
Investigations into voter fraud, whether by governmental entities or private researchers, have disclosed almost no evidence of deliberate fraud. Further, governmental investigations into voter fraud may overlook systemic problems with voting that have nothing to do with calculated deception. They may also have a chilling effect on voters, persuading people who are entitled to vote that they cannot or should not exercise that right. In fact, some politicians have admitted that laws supposedly meant to combat voter fraud were actually designed to suppress the votes of certain groups. Claims of voter fraud should be met with skepticism and a willingness to look beyond inflammatory rhetoric.
Kathleen Davies is a staff writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.