Voter fraud: Chances like lightning strike

Despite the hype, voter fraud is rare.
Despite the hype, voter fraud is rare.
Presidential campaigns are hard fought. There are punches and counterpunches, accusations and retorts. This election has all that and more, with the Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, repeatedly charging that the election is “rigged.”

    “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” Trump alleged in a recent tweet posted to his Twitter account.  
    But how common is voter fraud today? In a blog for The Washington Post in 2014, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, wrote that since 2000 he had tracked 31 different incidents of voter fraud. He pointed out that during that period, in general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion votes were cast.
    The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan public policy institute focused on issues of democracy and justice, published a report in 2007 by Levitt that summed up: “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
    Here is a compressed account of that report, The Truth about Voter Fraud:

Voter fraud, defined: Simply put, voter fraud is when someone who is ineligible to vote casts a ballot. For example, someone goes to vote using the name of a deceased person.

Other forms of election misconduct: There are other forms of misconduct -- putting out fliers that give citizens the wrong voting location, for example. Some misconduct is unintentional. “A person with a conviction may honestly believe herself eligible to vote when the conviction renders her temporarily ineligible, or an election official may believe that certain identification documents are required to vote when no such requirement exists.” The report adds, “These are all problems with the election administration system … but they are not ‘voter fraud.’”

Classic voter fraud: The report recounts this quote from Louisiana Gov. Earl Long (1895-1960): “When I die, I want to be buried in Louisiana so I can stay active in politics.” The “dead man voting” scenario is classic voter fraud -- but truly uncommon. In 1995, an investigation focused on 89 cases of dead people voting in Maryland. The probe found that everyone involved voted while still alive and died later.The federal agent in charge of the investigation said that the nearest they came was when they 'found one person who had voted then died a week after the election,'” the report said.
    Sometimes, the problem involves a simple skill: matching names. When a resident votes, the person gives his or her name. The election official matches the name to the identical name found on the voter list. But even that can get complicated, the report said:“Having died in 1997, Alan J. Mandel was alleged to have voted in 1998. On further investigation, Alan J. Mandell (two “l”s), who was very much alive and voting at the time, explained that local election workers simply checked the wrong name off of the list.”

Noncitizens voting: The Brennan Center said it is unaware of any cases of noncitizens voting or trying to vote. The exception involved noncitizens who were mistakenly given voter registration forms (before they were technically eligible to vote) by a group that had been helping them through the naturalization process.

Dogs voting:  It would make a good Pixar movie, but in reality, it doesn’t happen. “We are aware of only two cases -- ever -- involving ballots actually submitted in the name of a dog: the ballots cast by 'Duncan MacDonald' in 2006 and 2007 (but labeled 'VOID' and signed with a paw print), and the ballot cast by 'Raku Bowman' in 2003 in the Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council elections in Venice, California. Only Bowman’s vote -- in a local election run by volunteers, rather than state or federal election officials -- was counted,” the report said.
    In a federal election, a dog owner would be taking astounding risks -- swearing falsely, forging signatures and on and on. That sort of thing could land a person in jail for an extended period.

Various mishaps: Politicians toss around the words “voter fraud” during elections, but a closer inspection tends to exonerate the parties involved. Separate individuals with the same names -- and even the same birthdays -- have been accused of double voting. It is also true that there is no requirement that residents notify local election officials when moving. “In New Hampshire in 2004, for example, local officials found 67 individuals on the rolls in both Dover and Durham; each of the 67 had moved from one town to the other, and each voted only once,” the report said.

Why it is rare: It is totally not worth the trouble. As put by the report, “Each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to any state penalties. In return, it yields at most one incremental vote.”

     The 50-page report can be read on The Brennan Center for Justice website. 


     Voting rights: past, present and future

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