Weird Internet Ideas: Voter fraud in the US

It is fascinating that this issue keeps coming up and it is asserted with such vehemence, such certainty, such confidence that I repeatedly see people on the left having to be defensive when discussing it.

So let’s start from the top. There is a voting fraud issue in US elections, it primarily benefits the Republican party (both directly and indirectly) and Republican legislators are doing nothing to stop it – worse they are using fear of voting fraud to commit actual voting fraud AND GETTING AWAY WITH IT (sort of).

Just look at that sentence. Even for somebody like myself, on the left, informed and deeply distrustful of rightwing talking points, that sentence looks so utterly at odds with established truth as to be absurd. Yet, it is easily the most defensible description of the current state of affairs on the issue. That is the exact opposite of the general impression simply demonstrates how important REALLY REALLY SHOUTY PEOPLE are in establishing a false impression – or rather how important really really shouty people with LEGISLATIVE POWER are at establishing a false impression.

Let’s deal with the facts first.

  1. Is there a voting fraud issue in US elections? Yes. It comes in three basic forms – a tiny amount of in-person voting fraud, a larger amount of invalid (and hence possibly fraudulent) absentee ballot voting, and finally a significant amount of roll purging (removing eligible people from voting rolls) by partisan voting officials/politicians. Those aren’t the only kinds of voting fraud possible but they are the most germane ones,
  2. The relative scale of the three basic kinds of fraud is telling. Republicans have been keen to point at the first possibility of fraud – an ineligible person turning up to vote or somebody voting twice. It is argued that such kind of fraud is practised by Democrats disproportionately. The second kind of possible fraud is in absentee ballots – notably, this is a style of voting that tends to favour Republicans and it is an area in which voting fraud tends to also favour Republicans. The last form of voting fraud is being openly practised by Republican-dominated states – it clearly favours Republicans and is often aimed at poorer constituents and at ethnic minorities. It clearly occurs and the defence that it does not amount to ‘fraud’ is the claim that the removal of eligible voters is accidental.
  3. The various steps taken by Republican legislators supposedly to tackle voter fraud has concentrated on the least significant (in scale) form of fraud: in person. Absentee ballot fraud has seen little action and the most substantial form of voter fraud (purging rolls) has been actively encouraged as supposed measure against the least significant form of voter fraud.

So yes
1. there is an issue with voter fraud
2. Republicans not only benefit from it but are the primary beneficiaries of it
3. Republicans are the main source of the fraud rather than taking a stance against it

How have they managed to establish a narrative so utterly at odds with the facts?

  1. Democrats are the ones with a constituency less likely to vote. That means Democrats are more likely to conduct voter registration drives and hence are much more likely to be associated with errors in voter registration. Such errors do not, in themselves, amount to voting fraud but they do add to the kinds of examples brought up by the right of non-citizens enrolled to vote or dead people enrolled to vote.
  2. ‘Research’ that shows the feasibility of individual in-person voter fraud. Various kinds of such research exists that demonstrate how it is possible to vote twice or vote when ineligible. However, that something is possible does not demonstrate that something is common.
  3. By focusing on a legislative fight on voter-ID laws, Republicans have set up an argument that positions them as defenders of the integrity of the voting process and Democrats as the people claiming that voting fraud is rare and insignificant. Of course, the argument is correct, voting fraud is rare and not on a significant scale to shape elections (except potentially local and very close elections) in the specific case of in-person voter fraud. However, OTHER kinds of voter fraud are problematic. That nuance is made in arguments but it is a nuance that is easily lost.

Yeah, yeah but where are your FACTS Camestros? Easy to say in-person fraud is less significant than absentee ballot fraud but that’s just your biased leftist biased bias-bias and look at all these anecdotes I’ve got. Simple – I went to an obviously biased source, but one biased towards the REPUBLICANS.

The Heritage Foundation has been lobbying for voter ID laws and supporting the Republican move for greater voting restrictions. To help that effort they have been compiling a ‘database’ of examples of voting fraud. Here it is (sort of – at least PDF of examples) http://thf_media.s3.amazonaws.com/2015/pdf/VoterFraudCases-8-7-15-Merged.pdf

The Heritage Foundation claim to have 400 cases in their database – and that alone should give people some pause. 400 cases over the past 15 years, covering ALL elections (many of the cases are local elections for minor positions) sounds small. However, that is 400 convictions – maybe these are 400 cases of people voting thousands of times! Nope. Many (most? – the PDF isn’t very tractable for a neat count) are single cases – people voting for an official in one county when they live in the next county. This case is not untypical http://www.mohavedailynews.com/news/local/hays-pleads-guilty-to-voter-fraud/%20article_5f5d908c-6af7-579b-b4c8-931b91a06423.html

However, there are lots of cases of absentee ballot fraud as well – now even many of those are at an individual level but what cases there are of voter fraud that gets above the ones and twos is absentee voting fraud. I’ll pick on a Democratic to make some readers feel less uncomfortable http://www.arktimes.com/ArkansasBlog/archives/2012/09/05/vote-fraud-case-coming-from-east-arkansas

Going off the Heritage Foundation examples (which I’d expect to have a bias towards false registration and in-person voting fraud examples), absentee voting fraud easily dwarfs in-person voting fraud in terms of fraudulent votes cast. Even so, the numbers are still small compared with the window of time being looked at and the range of elections included. Personally reading through all these examples, it looks like the quickest way of reducing electoral fraud in the US would to stop having elected sheriffs – but that is a whole other story.

[Ballot petition fraud is an additional kind of fraud that pops up a lot in the Heritage foundation examples – i.e. getting dodgy signatures to qualify somebody to get on a ballot. The impact of this kind of fraud again is mainly on local elections.]

But wait, how can I be so sure that in-person voter fraud is not significant? Yes, I know that the documented cases are tiny compared with the number of votes cast. yes, I know prosecutions are rare *BUT* maybe this is an issue with reporting of cases. Some kinds of crimes are very harder to measure because there is not a simple relation between the number of cases of crime and the number of crimes reported. Domestic violence, for example may sharp increases of crimes reported because of improved policing and improved recording of data.

Well I can be sure by using whether the reported figures match what we know. Yes, an individual might be able to vote twice or vote even though they are ineligible but for them to want to do so and for it to make a difference to the electoral results, it requires a degree of organisation.

Consider, for example, a Fox News story about people supposedly being bussed around to different voting booths to vote. Let’s say you are intent on voter fraud and you’ve got 20 people to help you, oh and a bus driver. Maybe you are paying them, maybe they are just equally keen on your cause. You drive them around from polling booth to polling booth and get them to vote multiple times.

Now that is 21 points of failure in your plan to start with – 21 people who might lead to you being prosecuted. Actually it is 21 times the number of times each one votes. If you get them to vote 100 times (unlikely) then to get those 2000 votes you’ve created more than 2000 times when you might get caught. It is possible that some idiot has done this but for it to be a regular occurrence and to be done on a scale that makes a difference would necessarily lead to lots of cases of people being caught.

Nor is the risk of being caught the only cost here. There is also a substantial opportunity cost. If you have 20 people willing to work on an election all day and the use of a bus, then that is resources that you can be using to get out your legitimate vote. So the net benefit is actually LESS than the number of extra votes these people would cast.

As plans go it is high risk and has low benefit. While somebody might be able to do this it really doesn’t make much sense as a plan.

No, as plans for systematic voter fraud go, in-person voter fraud is risky, difficult to organise and has few benefits. A better plan is one where one person can vote multiple times, over an extended period of time an with less coordination/organisation. Absentee ballot fraud is a more attractive plan than in-person voting fraud.

Now many of the cited cases from the right on US voter fraud do indeed involve absentee ballots! Aha! Case closed! Voter fraud! Yeah, but…the measure being proposed to deal with voter fraud by Republican legislators do very little to stop absentee ballot fraud – indeed they do almost nothing. How come?

The reason is simple: absentee ballots are popular among many Republican voters. Obviously Democrats use them as well but it widely recognised as an area in which the Republicans with many older votes does well. Restriction on absentee ballots to reduce voter fraud would impact on Republican voters and so measures to reduce fraud among absentee ballots is not advocated.

While absentee ballot fraud is more common than in person voter fraud, the measures proposed do very little on the more common kind of fraud. Funny that.

Even so, plans for absentee ballot fraud still require effort, organisation and people who might confess to fraud. It is a better plan than in-person fraud but not a good plan.

A good plan involves controlling the electoral process itself and then openly trying to prevent the other parties voters from voting by removing them from the electoral roll or creating obstacles to them voting. It is a better plan because unlike other kinds of electoral fraud, this approach avoids criminal liability. The scheme may still be found to be illegal (specifically unconstitutional) but it has the advantage that it can be done in the open with a big cloud of deniability obscuring the view.

Take just one example from 2008 https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/united-states-student-association-foundation-v-land-order?redirect=cpredirect/37136
Secretary of State for the State of Michigan removed THOUSANDS of voters from the roll. The scale at which this kind of act can disenfranchise and hence distort elections is massive. One powerful person can have a bigger impact than even multiple cases of the kind of absentee ballot fraud documented above. Compared with the impact of in-person fraud, the scale of this kind of purging is incomparable. Yet, the possibility of in-person or registration fraud (scale: small) is used as a pretext for purging rolls (as in the Michigan case). I can’t think of an analogy that doesn’t sound hysterical.

Essentially the US has a kind of inverted pyramid of voter fraud: the kind of fraud which has the least potential to impact elections gets the MOST attention and the most attempts at legislation. As you look at more substantial kinds of fraud legislative measures tend to drop off (e.g. Republicans doing little to address absentee ballot fraud but concentrating on voter ID laws which will do little or nothing to stop the more substantial form of fraud). When we get to the scale of voting fraud that probably does impact on major election results (including presidential elections) not only are Republicans not acting against it but instead celebrating it and USING THE POSSIBILITY OF IN-PERSON VOTING FRAUD as a pretext for doing it!

I’d be flabbergasted but I’ve worn out my flabber from too much gasting of late.

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12 comments

  1. Cora

    I can’t help but think that the reason voter fraud is considered such a big issue in the US and seems to happen on a notable level at all is the chaotic voting and registration system, which enables voter fraud in the first place and also enables mass disenfranchisings like the one Camestros mentioned.

    I never had to register to vote at all. Ever since I turned eighteen, when there’s an election coming up, I get my voter card in the mail informing me where to cast my ballot. Then I can either apply for an absentee ballot or go to my assigned voting station with my voter card and ID to vote. At the voting station, the poll workers compare the voter card to the voter list (to make sure that people don’t apply both for absentee ballots and vote in person or vote at more than one station). Normally, they also check the ID, though they’ve never checked mine, because one of the poll workers is my old teacher who knows me.

    The system works well and there are very few cases of voter fraud. We’ve had a handful of recounts required due to organisational issues or counting errors. There was one case of a sixteen or seventeen year old who faked her birthdate in order to be eligible to drive, got a voter card and promptly voted. Here, the uproar was more that someone managed to fake their birthdate in the official register than that an ineligible sixteen or seventeen year old cast a single vote. There also was a case of absentee ballot fraud, where a worker at a nursing home filled out absentee ballots for patients according to her own preferences rather than the patients’. This case actually led to a conviction, though I doubt the fraud had much impact on the outcome of the election.

    I also find that it’s usually the right who cry fraud and demand recounts, when the “silent majority” turns out not to support them after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cora

      Regarding the absentee ballot fraud case at the nursing home, I suspect that there is a certain dark number of similar cases we never learn about. But people voting multiple times or dead people voting are not an issue here.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      I’m still trying to clean up that Heritage Foundation data into a spreadsheet usable form…but an awful lot of the fraud seems to be around things like sheriffs and mayors but also primaries. The US has lots or smaller scale elections for positions that have a degree of power & money but which people overall might not be that concerned about. So small numbers of voters, lack of oversight and some reasonable financial stakes – essentially ideal conditions for trying to rig a ballot.

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  2. Mark

    Very nicely laid out, Camestros.

    So, what I’m not seeing is any evidence out there that it’s particularly Democrats who are engaging in these rather limited numbers of frauds, or that there are any elections that have been swung by them.

    I mean, given the sheer amount of time that the accusations have been leveled for, and the attention given to them, you’d have thought a smoking gun would have been found by now.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      Lots of smaller local elections possibly swung by such things. 20+ references to sheriff’s in that Heritage Fnd database for example. Cases of double voting in primaries also. Mayoral elections.

      I don’t think the database they’ve made is a sensible sample – if it is then most registration fraud occurs in Minnesota. Actually a quarter(?) maybe of the database is from Minnesota – so either they are particulalry vigilant or particularly fraudulent there.

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  3. greghullender

    What about fraud from paperless voting machines? I worry about that a lot in places like Kansas, where a software hack could give you any election results you wanted, and there would be no way for anyone to audit the result.

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  4. KR

    Voter fraud is negligible. Voter suppression is real, intentional, widespread and on the march. It’s so fundamentally cynical and anti-democratic and provides yet more evidence that the system is meant for some and not for others. For-profit schools and prisons and health care. Stacking the courts. Banks that are too big to fail. Militarization of police forces. Use of Stingray surveillance to eavedrop on general public without warrants. Drone attacks on civilians. Arresting journalists and documentarians and siccing dogs on protesters at the North Dakota Pipeline. I feel like I’ve woken up in some awful dystopia without the slightest idea how to roll it all back.

    I’m increasingly worried about what is surely going to happen after Nov 8. No matter who wins, but esp if its HC, I’m afraid we are in for a nasty bout of civilian-led attacks on various non-male, non-white constituencies. I don’t think Don Tromp’s followers are going to accept defeat and they are very angry and very well-armed.

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  5. lunarg

    Bit late, but as a resident of the State of Michigan at the time of the voter purges, the poorly executed and communicated nature of the project simply added insult to injury. I vote in every millage and township election, and still feel the need to check my registration status before each big election. I’ve never had a problem… Yet.

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