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The myth of voter fraud

David Schultz
Courtesy of Hamline University
David Schultz

Claims of voter fraud in Minnesota are greatly exaggerated. Minnesota Reps. Mary Kiffmeyer and Tom Emmer have introduced legislation calling for photo identification in order to address voter fraud. They assert that alleged voter fraud in the state can only be cured by photo IDs. Yet what evidence exists that voter fraud is rampant?

Last year — in two articles of mine in the Harvard Law and Policy Review and William Mitchell Law Review — I investigated all the credible studies examining voter fraud. The conclusion?  There is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem that has affected any recent elections, including in Minnesota.
   
Voter fraud refers to intentional acts by voters to falsely register or vote. The most persistent claims of voter fraud come from the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, and the Carter-Baker Report. Fund's "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy" alleges that the Florida 2000 presidential election demonstrated "sloppiness that makes fraud and foul-ups in election counts possible."

No statistics to support claims
Even if one accepts all of his claims in his book as true, the sloppiness he alleges is not voter fraud, the problems are with election officials. He alleges that "lax standards for registration encouraged by the Motor Voter Law have left the voter rolls in a shambles in many states."  Fund does not document which states, what "shambles" means, how the problems affect voting, and whether those problems constitute voter fraud. In short, the book fails to provide verifiable statistics to support its claims.
   
"Building Confidence in U.S. Elections: Report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform," the report of a group chaired by former president Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker ("Carter-Baker Commission") is cited by those who argue that there is widespread voter fraud. The report asserts that: "While election fraud occurs, it is difficult to measure." Proof is citation to 180 Department of Justice investigations resulting in convictions of 52 individuals from October 2002 until the release of the report in 2005. While the Carter-Baker Commission called for photo IDs, it also noted that: "There is no evidence of extensive [fraud] in U.S. elections, or of multiple voting, but both occur, and it could affect the outcome of a close election."  As with other studies, absentee voting is singled out as the place where fraud is most likely to occur.
   
Even accepting all of the documented accounts of fraud as true, they are insignificant. The Brennan Center points out that in the state of Washington, for example, six cases of double voting and 19 instances of individuals voting in the name of the dead yielded 25 fraudulent votes out of 2,812,675 cast — a 0.0009 percent rate of fraud. Assume the 52 convictions by the Department of Justice are accurate instances of fraud.  This means that 52 out of 196,139,871 ballots cast in federal elections, or  0.000003 percent of the votes were fraudulent.
   
Minnesota's numbers also insignificant
The same is true in Minnesota. In 2006 there were six alleged cases of illegal aliens seeking to vote out of a total of 2,202,937 votes cast. This represents 0.000003 percent of all votes cast.  Even if there are other forms of voter fraud, they are an insignificant number. Mary Kiffmeyer should know better. During her tenure as secretary of state she was unable to document any serious or widespread voter fraud.  If fraud did exist, there is no indication that the current laws are ill-equipped to address the problem.
   
Conversely, defenders of voter IDs trumpeted studies claiming that the adoption of voter ID laws in states such as Indiana have actually led to an increase in turnout. These studies are statistically flawed. They ignore or fail to control for the overall aggregate affects of increased get-out-the-vote efforts and mobilization among Democrats in 2006 and 2008. They also ignore that the increase in turnout in Indiana was less than in other swing states that did not adopt photo ID laws.  Finally, they really do not examine the impact the photo ID laws have had on those individuals who lack such identification and who sought to vote.
   
The most comprehensive study so far on voter fraud largely dismisses its existence. A report by the bipartisan United States Election Commission concluded there was "little polling place fraud," including voter impersonation, "dead" voters, noncitizen voting, and felon voters. The main abuses were absentee-ballot fraud and efforts to intimidate voters on Election Day. None of this will be cured by photo IDs when voting.
   
Think about it. Do we really believe people are lying and cheating their way to the ballot box?  The hard evidence nationally and in Minnesota dismisses this claim as simply a myth.
                                                           
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University, where he teaches classes in government ethics and election law.

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Comments (8)

Why do Republicans want to make it harder and harder to vote? It is not surprising that Mary Kiffmeyer would sponsor this bill, as she is the founder of Minnesota Majority. You will recall this is the group that explicitly extolled the virtues of "racial purity". Does Kiffmeyer yearn for a return to eugenics? Is a group that extols the virtues of racial purity by default a white supremacist group? Why is it not surprising that Kiffmeyer is the one to try and disenfranchise the poor, elderly, and minority. Minnesota Majority indeed.

Well, Minnesota's primary method of verifying a person's identity and eligibility to vote in a given precinct is (several months after the votes have already been cast) mailing a postcard to the registrant. If the postcard comes back undeliverable, that voter's registration is flagged inactive. These postcards are only kept for 22 months, but I have just learned that Ramsey County alone currently has 40,000 of these retured postcards in their possession. That's a HUGE number of voters whose addresses can't be confirmed by the only security measure employed to verify them. Again, this check is done AFTER the election, AFTER the votes have been counted.

There is a long and sad history of the poor, minorities, recent legal immigrants, and others being disenfranchised in our elections. They start with the notion that their voices are not being heard anyway, so why vote -- then placing further obstacles in their path keeps them away from the polls. That is exactly what those who fear their vote want to happen.

Photo IDs (usually a drivers license) may not be common to these people, so that adds a further disincentive to their participation in our elections.

Adding more obstacles is simply a solution looking for a problem. It is a BAD idea!

Dan McGrath writes
"If the postcard comes back undeliverable, that voter's registration is flagged inactive. These postcards are only kept for 22 months, but I have just learned that Ramsey County alone currently has 40,000 of these retured postcards in their possession. That's a HUGE number of voters whose addresses can't be confirmed by the only security measure employed to verify them."

What's the problem? Sure, 40,000 is a big number. But it doesn't mean anything. First, did these people vote? If not, there's no problem. When did these people move? Did they move to a new district, or within the existing district?

More interesting is whether a photo-ID mandate actually reduces the opportunity for fraud. For instance, if I move the day before an election, I'm technically no longer valid to vote - but I still have an ID with the old address. I suppose you could argue that I'd only be able to vote in one place, but it seems that sympathetic election judges in the new precinct would allow me to vote there as well with perhaps a signed lease or closing papers from the purchase of a home.

In short, there is no evidence offered that there is a substantial fraud problem and no evidence of an effective solution.

"It is not surprising that Mary Kiffmeyer would sponsor this bill, as she is the founder of Minnesota Majority. You will recall this is the group that explicitly extolled the virtues of "racial purity"."

Wrong on both counts. Representative Kiffmeyer did not found Minnesota Majority. This is an unfortunate example of unverified misinformaion perpetuating on the internet.

Minnesota Majority never "extolled the virtues of racial purity." This is a disgusting, underhanded (though all too commonly employed from some circles)smear.

Similar efforts where I live I created a 2 minute video that tries to explain. Fraud is not a problem - charging for the ID is unconstitutional - giving it away free will cost the state millions. Creating hurdles for the poor, disabled and elderly is not good public policy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVQixtc1ZGE

Living in 21st Century America, a photo ID is almost a basic staple of life.

If, as Miles suggests, the lack of photo IDs adds a further disincentive to a legal immigrant's participation in our elections, I'd go further to suggest that it is a disincentive to fully integrate in our society.

Photo ID's are accessable to any legal citizen of the US in Minnesota. The cost is negligable, especially compared with the benefits.

Finally, in my opinion, it is disingenious to suggest that a lack of evidence is proof that voter fraud never occurs when I am not aware that any in depth investigations have ever been undertaken.

"Finally, in my opinion, it is disingenious to suggest that a lack of evidence is proof that voter fraud never occurs when I am not aware that any in depth investigations have ever been undertaken."

Thomas, David Schultz mentioned the extensive efforts by Kiffmeyer as secretary of state and by the US DOJ to find and prosecute voter fraud. They searched under every rock. They were willing to bring cases so weak that they lost a large number. With the full weight of the DOJ behind the investigations, I fail to see how they could be more thoroughly investigated. Yet they found nothing.

Also, Myles didn't mention just legal immigrants having trouble getting IDs. I'd argue with the notion that they're one of the more affected groups anyway. Poor people, elderly, and physically disabled are the most affected. For many people in these groups, getting an ID is not a negligible matter, and the benefit is only being able to vote if these laws pass. They don't have a use for a photo ID otherwise. They don't pass checks in stores, buy airplane tickets, or do other things for which IDs are required.