Sami Edge and Sean Holstege, News21
Politicians and voting rights advocates continue to clash over whether photo ID and other voting requirements are needed to prevent voter fraud, but a News21 analysis and recent court rulings show little evidence that such fraud is widespread.
A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found 10 cases of voter impersonation — the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls.
This year, News21 reviewed cases in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud, and found hundreds of allegations but few prosecutions between 2012 and 2016. Attorneys general in those states successfully prosecuted 38 cases, though other cases may have been litigated at the county level. At least one-third of those cases involved non-voters, such as elections officials or volunteers.
None of the cases prosecuted was for voter impersonation.
“Voter fraud is not a significant problem in the country,” said Jennifer Clark of the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve systems of democracy and justice. “As the evidence that has come out in some recent court cases and reports and basically every analysis that has ever been done has concluded: It is not a significant concern.”
Lorraine Minnite — a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden who wrote a book on the phenomenon in 2010 called The Myth of Voter Fraud — said in an interview that she has not seen an uptick in the crime since.
“Voter fraud remains rare because it is irrational behavior,” Minnite said. “You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there, and we have rules to prevent against it.”
Christopher Coates, former chief of the voting section in the U.S. Department of Justice, disagrees.
“The claim by the liberal left that there is no voter fraud that is going on is completely false,” he told News21. “Any time that there are people voting that are not legally entitled to vote, that’s a big issue. It carries with it the potential for deciding elections in a way that is contrary to the voting majority of people.”
Coates, who now works as the general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, pointed to a list of voter fraud allegations kept by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The list, based largely on news clippings and news releases, counted more than 100 allegations of voter fraud in the United States since 2012 — but only a handful were allegations of voter impersonation that could have been prevented by voter ID.
The Republican National Lawyers Association also has a list of more than 200 allegations of election fraud of all kinds reported by news outlets since 2012.
The 2016 Republican platform, adopted in July, urges states to require proof of citizenship and photo ID out of concern that “voting procedures may be open to abuse.” At the same time, this summer, several federal courts struck down or revised a number of the state laws requiring specific forms of photo ID at the polls.
In July, Judge James Peterson of the U.S. District Court in Madison struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, concluding that there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in Wisconsin — or in the rest of the United States. Peterson suspended portions of the law that restricted early and absentee voting and provisions that limited the forms of acceptable ID to vote. That decision was upheld Aug. 22 by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
“The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” Peterson wrote in his ruling. “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
In a separate case, Judge Lynn Adelman of the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee ordered the state to create an affidavit system allowing voters unable to get an ID to attest they are eligible voters. Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed that ruling, and the 7th Circuit agreed, overturning Adelman’s order, so for now, no affidavit system will be in effect Nov. 8.
Reid Magney, spokesman for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told News21 that until recently, the state did not track voter fraud. The responsibility to prosecute those crimes lies with district attorneys across the state.
“The numbers of prosecutions are so low that it hasn’t been a priority for us to track those things,” Magney said. “If somebody was charged with fraud it would make (the) newspapers.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told News21 that the number of fraud cases is beside the point. “All it takes is one person whose vote is canceled by someone not voting legally and that’s a problem,” he said. “I always tell folks who oppose (the ID law), tell me whose vote they want canceled out.”
A similarly strict Texas voter ID law was weakened by a federal appeals court after a panel of judges determined that the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that African-Americans were 1.79 times more likely — and Latinos 2.42 times more likely — than whites to lack the required identification.
Judges also have found that minority voters are less likely to own a car and therefore less likely to get a driver’s license that could be used as an ID.
The appellate court did not strike down the Texas law entirely, but under a temporary fix approved by a federal judge, the state’s voters won’t have to show ID in the November general election.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called voter fraud “rampant” in Texas. A records request from News21 to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas shows that more than 360 allegations of voter fraud were sent to the attorney general since 2012. Fifteen of those cases were successfully prosecuted. Four of those convicted were voters — the rest were elections officials or third-party volunteers.
Minnite, who has studied voter fraud for 15 years, said that actual instances of fraud lie somewhere between the number successfully prosecuted and the number of allegations. In her experience, few allegations meet the criteria of fraud: “intentional corruption of the electoral process” by voters.
“Large numbers (of allegations) getting reduced, reduced, reduced at each level is the pattern that I’ve seen over and over and over again,” Minnite said.
In July, a federal appeals court for the 4th Circuit decided that the North Carolina law intentionally discriminated against minority voters and ordered the state to make voter ID requirements less strict. In attempting to “combat voter fraud and promote public confidence,” the state ignored the issue of absentee ballot fraud, instead cracking down on voter impersonation, a problem “that did not exist,” according to the court decision.
Absentee ballots are “disproportionately used by whites,” the court said, while the voter ID restrictions enacted “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
State Sen. Ron Rabin, who helped push the voter ID bill through the North Carolina Senate, said the law wasn’t intended to discriminate. “I don’t want to disenfranchise anybody,” he said. “I want to have them enfranchised so that one vote, one person. That’s the whole thought behind that whole bill.”
But Kim Strach, director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, testified in a recent court case about North Carolina’s voter ID law that she has referred only two cases of voter impersonation to prosecutors since 2013.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that he was “afraid the election was going to be rigged” without ID laws. “There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”
But to vote repeatedly in person on Election Day — the kind of fraud that Trump talked about — someone would have to steal another voter’s ballot. Minnite, the Rutgers professor, says that’s as difficult as “pickpocketing a cop.”
A voter would need to know names, addresses and other identifying information about whomever they were impersonating, she said. Then he or she would have to show up at the polling place and pretend to be that other person in front of the same elections officials who had likely seen the person vote in his or her own name. Beyond that, fraudulent voters would have to hope that nobody in the polling place knew the people they were impersonating.
Given that America’s turnout rates are so comparatively low, the idea of widespread voter fraud just doesn’t make sense, said David Schultz, professor of public policy at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. “There’s this image that somehow, people are clamoring to go to the polls on Election Day to commit fraud,” he said. “Look at our voting statistics. It just doesn’t bear out.”
Hillary Davis and Andrew Clark contributed to this report, which is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism distributed and contributed to this report.