The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud. It is being used to persuade the public that deceitful and criminal voters are manipulating the electoral system. No available evidence suggests that voters are intentionally corrupting the electoral process, let alone in numbers that dilute and cancel out “the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans. ” The lack of evidence is not due to a failure to codify voter fraud as a crime, nor is it due to the inability or unwillingness of local law enforcement agencies to investigate or prosecute potential cases of voter fraud.
In fact, when they was a probe to most allegations of voter fraud there were finding errors, incompetence, and partisanship. The exaggerated fear of voter fraud has a long history of scuttling efforts to make voting easier and more inclusive, especially for marginalized groups in American society. With renewed partisan vigor, fantasies of fraud are being spun again to undo some of the progress America has made lowering barriers to the vote. DEFINITION OF VOTER FRAUD
We need a basic definition of voter fraud that cuts through the confusion without violating the way voter fraud is diversely treated in state and federal law. We can start with the U. S. Department of Justice’s definition of election fraud and apply it to election crimes committed by voters. The Justice Department defines election fraud as “conduct that corrupts the process by which ballots are obtained, marked, or tabulated; the process by which election results are canvassed and certified; or the process by which voters are registered.
” Voter fraud is a sub-category of election fraud, or the intentional corruption of the electoral process by voters. This covers knowingly and willingly giving false information to establish voter eligibility, and knowingly and willingly voting illegally or participating in a conspiracy to encourage illegal voting by others. Apparent acts of fraud that result from voter mistakes or isolated individual wrongdoing or mischief making not aimed at corrupting the voting process should not be considered fraud, though sometimes these acts are prosecuted as such.
All other forms of corruption of the electoral process and corruption committed by elected or election officials, candidates, party organizations, advocacy groups or campaign workers fall under the wider definition of election fraud. VOTER FRAUD AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIDENCE How prevalent is voter fraud? A2005 U. S. Senate Republican Policy Committee report claimed that “voter fraud continues to plague our nation’s federal elections, diluting and canceling out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans” (emphasis added).
This would be shocking if it were true. However, the Committee made it without providing a single piece of evidence to support or clarify the claim. It cited no surveys, no statistics, no studies, and no credible evidence whatsoever to back up its warning that election results are routinely distorted by fraud in the United States. Evidence of voter fraud like all other crimes comes from law enforcement efforts to combat it The Committee cited no data because there is very little to cite.
Evidence of voter fraud like evidence of other forms of criminal behavior is primarily produced by law enforcement efforts to detect and prosecute it. And the available evidence here suggests that voters rarely commit voter fraud. As in the case of all other kinds of crime, it is simply unacceptable to allege law breaking without providing at least some supporting evidence. What is that evidence? At the national level, a major new project at the U. S. Department of Justice, the Ballot Access, and Voting Integrity Initiative (BAVII) has resulted in only a handful of convictions.
According to the Attorney General, since the inception of the program in 2002, “we’ve made enforcement of election fraud and corruption offenses a top priority. ” The result? Government records show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005, an average of eight people a year. This includes 19 people who were ineligible to vote, five because they were still under state supervision for felony convictions, and 14 who were not U. S. citizens; and five people who voted twice in the same election, once in Kansas and again in Missouri.
The lack of evidence is not due to a failure to codify voter fraud as a crime If fraud is such a persistent concern of those who run elections, government agencies responsible for election administration should collect statistics on it, as they do in other serious matters, certainly other crimes. It is not as if the states have failed to detail the ways voters could corrupt elections. There are hundreds of examples drawn from state election codes and constitutions that illustrate the precision with which the states have criminalized voter and election fraud.
If they are to use the same standards for judging voter fraud crime rates as they do for other crimes, which is to calculate the incidence of crime from law enforcement statistics on arrests, indictments and convictions, they must conclude that the lack of evidence of arrests, indictments or convictions for any of the practices defined as voter fraud means very little fraud is being committed relative to the millions of votes cast each year in state, local and federal elections. The lack of evidence of voter fraud is not due to law enforcement agencies ignoring their duties
Even if crime reports underestimate true crime rates because some crimes go unreported or undetected, or because criminal behavior is sometimes addressed by means other than prosecution, crime is still measured as a function of law enforcement efforts to address it. Under the rule of law, enforcement efforts establish the core evidence of crime. It is difficult to conceive of whole categories of criminal behavior that go almost completely undetected or ignored by law enforcement officials at all levels of government across the U.
S. today. Yet, those who believe there is a lot of voter fraud despite the lack of evidence frequently fall back on this argument. When confronted they charge the paucity of evidence is due to the government’s failure to undertake the investigations and prosecutions that would produce it. Amore plausible explanation is that voters are not committing fraud, leaving little to investigate or prosecute. The lack of evidence of voter fraud is not due to the inability of law enforcement agencies to pursue voter fraud investigations
Some argue that local officials are ill-equipped to detect voter fraud and poorly motivated to pursue investigations and prosecutions of voter fraud given their lack of expertise and resources and the public’s demand for attention to more serious or violent crimes. If election crime, perhaps like international securities fraud or organized crime, were beyond the ken of local officials to investigate, then we might expect a dearth of prosecutions and little evidence of voter fraud. This is another explanation offered by those who argue that there is a lot of fraud despite the lack of evidence.
Local officials, the argument goes, can’t or won’t prosecute fraud for a variety of reasons. The detection and prosecution of voter fraud, however, is not beyond the ken of local officials. In fact, as the Justice Department manual on how to investigate and prosecute election crime argues, “there are several reasons why election crime prosecutions may present an easier means of obtaining convictions than do other forms of public corruption. ” They are, 1) “election crimes usually occur largely in public,” 2) “election crimes often involve many players,” and 3) “election crimes tend to leave a paper trail.
” Without any evidence to support it, the notion that local law enforcement officials are unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute voter fraud lacks merit. But, as the saying goes, if you repeat a rumor enough times people will start to believe it. Central Findings Available evidence suggests that the incidence of election fraud is minimal across the 50 U. S. states and rarely affects election outcomes. • Election officials generally do a very good job of protecting against fraud in the system and ensuring that election outcomes fairly reflect the intentions of voters.
• Conditions that give rise to election fraud have steadily declined over the last century as a result of weakened political parties, strengthened election administration, and improved voting technology. • There is little available evidence that election reforms such as the National Voter Registration Act, Election Day registration, and mail-in voting have resulted in increases in election fraud. • The disenfranchisement of voters through antiquated voting systems, system error, and improper management of registration databases, as occurred in Florida in the 2000 election, is a far bigger problem than traditional forms of election fraud.
Efforts to make it easier to register and vote are compatible with the prevention of election fraud. Fears of election fraud should not inhibit electoral reform efforts aimed at addressing the problem of low voter participation. • States can reduce the potential for fraud by integrating and computerizing state voter registration records, as mandated by the new federal election law, the Help America Vote Act. These same reforms also reduce problems at the polls and make registration and voting easier.
• Reduced partisanship among election officials decreases the chances of fraud and also helps create more professionalized election administration. • Election day registration (EDR), which has been proven to increase voter participation, also reduces the possibility for fraud as more registrations are handled by election officials. • Vigorous signature-matching procedures can prevent fraud under mail-in voting election systems. Best practices in select states show how to prevent fraud while keeping voting accessible.
• Ten states have very effective unified, computerized statewide records that are checked against other records, such as state death records and the National Change of Address database. Under the Help America Vote Act, all states must now develop similar registration databases, which will go a long way toward preventing opportunities to commit fraud. • A number of states have voter identification requirements that allow a wide range of voter I. D. , which can be used when implementing HAVA’s I. D. requirements for certain first-time voters.
• A few states have made strides toward reducing partisan control of elections by having bipartisan state elections boards oversee elections. An even better practice would be the adoption of nonpartisan state elections boards. A Framework for Understanding Fraud While heated debates over election fraud have been going on for more than a century, the circumstances that surround voting and elections have changed dramatically over time and continue to evolve rapidly today. Elections remain as contested as ever, but the conditions conducive to election fraud have steadily declined. This trend is likely to continue in the near future.
Three factors account for this change: declining political parties and machines, strengthened election administration, and improved voting technology. While some level of fraud, as traditionally defined, is likely to exist within any electoral system, current trends suggest that it is more possible than ever to further open the process and facilitate voting without bringing about greater fraud. Exaggerated fears of fraud should not stand as an obstacle to reforms aimed at expanding participation. Declining Political Parties. Historically, local political parties have played an important role in perpetrating election fraud.
During the late 19th century and well into the 20th century, a key motive for fraud was the immense local patronage benefits afforded to winning parties. Under these conditions, parties, patronage, and fraud were intertwined. Election fraud was perpetrated by partisans acting together to steal elections. Local party organizations competed for voters and controlled votes through patronage. When elections were fully controlled by local party organizations, ballots were easily destroyed, miscounted, or falsely multiplied, and voters could be strongly influenced by bosses or local elites to vote in specific ways.
Typically, cases of election fraud involved organized efforts by partisan election officials, party leaders, and politicians rather than by the voters themselves. Today, local party organizations are relatively weak to nonexistent, in part because their access to patronage has all but disappeared. They no longer control lucrative franchises, run police and fire departments, set utility rates, or build large-scale public works. However, in many states key election officials are openly partisan and may also play an active role in partisan political campaigns, a conflict of interest that increases the potential for fraud.