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The ‘Voter Fraud’ Myth Debunked

Voter Fraud

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As we've reported at Rolling Stone, over the past few years Republicans in more than a dozen states have been knocking themselves out passing laws that make it harder for people to vote. It hasn't escaped notice that the voters most affected by these measures – from voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting – are Democrats. But no matter: Republicans deny they're waging a partisan "war on voting" – they say the new laws are needed to combat rampant voter fraud. That's the line laid down most recently by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to justify purging his state's voter rolls of alleged noncitizens. "We need to have fair elections," he said last week. "When you go out to vote, you want to make sure that the other individuals that are voting have a right to vote."

But here's the thing: Not only is voter fraud not rampant – it's virtually nonexistent. The iron-clad word on the subject comes from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, whose 2007 report, 'The Truth About Voter Fraud,' sorts through thousands of allegations going back to the 1990s in the most in-depth voter fraud study ever undertaken. The bottom line, confirmed by all subsequent research: "Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated — and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked." In fact, "one is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud."

We've used the Brennan findings to put together this quick-and-dirty guide to voter fraud claims. Click through to find out about the most commonly cited voter fraud allegations – and why they almost never pan out.

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dead voters

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Voting by Dead People

Or, if you prefer, living voters are casting ballots in the names of dead ones. (As in: 'Among Voters in New Jersey, GOP Sees Dead People' '1.8 Million Dead People Registered to Vote,' and 'Dead People Cast Over 950 Ballots in South Carolina.')

The truth: In most cases, allegations arise from flawed matches of death records and voter rolls. Sometimes a voter turns out to have died after voting; in other cases, a living voter might be mistaken for a dead one with the same name.

Typical case: In Georgia in 2000, 5,412 votes were alleged to have been cast by dead voters over the previous 20 years. The allegations were based on a flawed match of voter rolls to death lists. An investigation turned up only one instance, and even this was later found to have been an error: One Alan J. Mandel was alleged to have voted in 1998, despite having died in 1997. It turned out that another Alan J. Mandell (two "l"s) – very much alive – was the guy who'd voted, but election workers simply checked the wrong name off of their list.

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false address

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Voting With Fraudulent Addresses

The truth: In many cases, fraud is claimed when mail comes back from the given address undelivered or undeliverable. But that's usually because the person has moved away, or the mail was misdirected or the address contained a typo or was garbled in the data-entry process. In others, addresses turn out to be vacant lots, storage units or government buildings, which usually turn out to be, again, the result of error, or are in fact legitimate addresses. Occasionally, suspicions are raised when multiple voters turn out to have registered at a single address. But usually the reason that they all live at a single address.

Typical case: In New Hampshire, a citizen became concerned because 88 individuals had registered with residences on property owned by Daniel Webster College. Further investigation revealed that all 88 were DW students living on college property.

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Brennan Center for Justice: The Truth About Voter Fraud

felons

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Voting by Convicted Felons

The truth: Only in a handful of cases have people stripped of the right to vote by convictions been shown to have knowingly voted illegally. This makes sense, since who would risk getting thrown back in jail for the sake of one extra vote? Less rarely – though not often – people vote without realizing they're ineligible, frequently because they were misinformed by clueless election officials. Sometimes, it's a case of people being convicted after voting; other times, a person convicted of a misdemeanor, which doesn't disqualify them from voting, is listed as a felon. Again, the fault often lies with flawed list matches caused by typos, clerical errors, and the like.

Typical case: In 2000, Florida claimed that 5,643 ineligible persons with convictions actually voted in the general election. Upon investigation, it turned out the data included eligible citizens with misdemeanors, citizens with convictions after their valid vote, and eligible voters whose names and birthdates matched those of convicted felons.

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Noncitizens

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Voting by Noncitizens

The truth: Not a single case has been found where individual noncitizens intentionally and knowingly registered to vote or voted. And, again, no wonder: The penalty (criminal prosecution and deportation) hardly justifies the payoff – one measly vote. As with other types of alleged fraud, claims are often based on mismatches between voter lists caused by data entry errors or simple misreading.

Typical case: In Washington in 2005, county officials were asked to investigate the citizenship status of 1,668 registered voters based on their "foreign-sounding names." Not a single individual on the submitted list turned out to be a noncitizen.

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registration fraud

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Registration Fraud

The truth: It's true that fraudulent registration forms do sometimes get submitted. What almost never happens is that an individual submits a form in someone else’s name in order to impersonate them at the polls. In most cases, it's a case of someone having a bit of fun, or making a mistake on their form, or voter registration workers, who typically work on commission, committing fraud.

Typical case: Says the Brennan Center report: "Most reports of registration fraud do not actually claim that the fraud happens so that ineligible people can vote at the polls. Indeed, we are aware of no recent substantiated case in which registration fraud has resulted in fraudulent votes being cast."

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voting by dogs

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Voting by Dogs

That is, people are voting in their dogs' names. As in: 'Prank Lands Voter in the Doghouse,' 'Woman Registers Her Dog to Vote; Prosecutors Growl."

The truth: Brennan turned up only nine specific reports of dogs found on the voter rolls. In six of the nine, the dogs were put on the rolls by people trying to make a point — that's it's possible to place a dog on the voter rolls. "Which is to say, if people no longer registered dogs to show that dogs are on the rolls, dogs would no longer be on the rolls." No wonder this kind of fraud rarely happens: To get a dog on the rolls, you need to risk up to 30 years imprisonment on federal charges alone. All for one vote!

Typical case: There is no typical case. Brennan found only two cases – ever – of ballots being submittted in the name of a dog: a ballot cast by "Duncan MacDonald" in 2006 and 2007 (but labeled "VOID" and signed with a paw print), and another cast by "Raku Bowman" in 2003 in a local election in Venice, California.

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Brennan Center for Justice: The Truth About Voter Fraud

vote buying

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Vote Buying

The truth: This does occasionally happen, with votes being bought for a small amount of money, or food, or cigarettes. But: Vote buying is not fraud – it's an illegal agreement between citizens, usually with the direct involvement of a candidate or campaign – and can't be addressed by most of the remedies put forward to tackle fraud – photo ID laws, restrictions on registration, etc.

Typical case: Not applicable, since vote buying, while a very serious crime, is not a type of voter fraud.

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Brennan Center for Justice: The Truth About Voter Fraud

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