It looks as though the phantom threat of voter fraud will be a major part of this year's presidential election, thanks to Donald Trump. He's already intimating that if he doesn't win, it will be because some people voted for Hillary Clinton 10 times. He's laying the groundwork for something we haven't seen in American elections in a long time: serious questioning of the legitimacy of a presidential election's outcome, perhaps with calls for insurrection based on it. Republican operative Rick Wilson (part of the Never Trump contingent) argued today in the Daily News that Trump needs to lose big in order to prevent this scenario, and I agree.
Ari Berman, who has become the expert's expert on voter suppression through his on-the-ground reporting in states with voter ID laws, has written not just the book on this subject (Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America), but also a short distillation of what's known about actual voter fraud.
To summarize Berman's explanation, the cases that do exist are not national but local, because voter fraud doesn't scale well. Absentee ballots are the primary means of fraud, an aspect Republicans never seem to mention in all of their rants about voter ID. In-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and never even close to systematic. All states require at least a matching signature before voting, and many require a lot more (though less than the restricted list of IDs advocated by Republicans in many states). For instance,
If Trump wanted to vote 10 times in New York — a state that requires voters to sign their names at the polls rather than show a photo ID — he’d have to vote in 10 different places, know the names and addresses of nine other registered voters in nine other precincts, be able to forge their exact signatures, and know that they hadn’t voted yet. Each fraudulent vote would carry a penalty of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine, plus additional state penalties.The one case I know of in Minnesota, for instance, was a woman who voted for herself and then later voted as her daughter, who was out of state at school and didn't get an absentee ballot in time. See what I mean about not being close to systematic?
I've heard some partisans lately claim that Romney's zero votes in a few precincts in Cleveland and Philadelphia must be evidence of voter fraud, too. But that makes no sense if the thing you're concerned about is voter impersonation. How does voter impersonation result in zero votes for Romney? To change three votes into zero votes would require removing votes, whether that's hard copy ballots or part of an electronic count. Berman covers this scenario, and makes it clear that the only time it's ever happened was with mail-in ballots:
Another strategy for stealing an election is to find someone on the inside. In Cudahy, Calif., in Los Angeles County, city officials in 2007 and 2009 systematically opened secret ballots, then resealed and counted them if they were cast for incumbents, or discarded them if they were not.But that was only to affect a local election, and it was only in one jurisdiction. Imagine trying to do that in multiple jurisdictions without anyone talking about it. Larger scale vote removal would require a big conspiracy and a lot of technical know-how, and there's no evidence that it has occurred.
Here's another great point from Berman:
Voter-ID laws in states such as North Carolina actually make voter fraud more likely by requiring strict ID for in-person voting, where fraud is rare, but exempting the ID requirement from absentee ballots, where fraud is more common, thus encouraging some voters to cast ballots using a less-secure method.But the thing to remember from Berman's essay is that large-scale fraud requires the involvement of lots of people, and secrets don't get kept when there are lots of people.
As with reports emphasizing food stamp cheating, the point of playing up voter impersonation is to undermine trust in the whole system. It's a cynical ploy that exploits our essential human desire for fairness and sanctity to gain political advantage.
And if I might use Donald Trump's favorite adjective, it's disgusting.
Here's the list of 31 verified instances of voter fraud that have happened since the year 2000 out of a billion-plus ballots cast in that time period. As the author of this piece says,
Some of these 31 incidents have been thoroughly investigated (including some prosecutions). But many have not. Based on how other claims have turned out, I’d bet that some of the 31 will end up debunked: a problem with matching people from one big computer list to another, or a data entry error, or confusion between two different people with the same name, or someone signing in on the wrong line of a pollbook.Meanwhile, thousands of people (over 2,300 in North Carolina alone) have been disenfranchised by voter ID laws passed in the same time.
Update: Here's a series of tweets by a Philadelphia election judge named Ryan Godfrey explaining (through his outrage) why it makes no sense that Romney's zero votes were the result of fraud or tampering.