Who can vote?

Election fraud rare, despite voter ID push

Thursday, August 30th, 2012 

The Investigative Reporting Workshop occasionally co-publishes investigations by our colleagues who are members of the Investigative News Network. Today we are featuring a story about voter fraud produced by 24 students from 11 universities working as part of the News21 team, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. See the full project.

The goal of the News21 program, headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, is to produce in-depth, innovative and interactive investigative journalism on issues of national importance.


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A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.

In an exhaustive public records search, News21 reporters sent thousands of requests to elections officers in all 50 states, asking for every case of fraudulent activity including registration fraud, absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, false election counts, campaign fraud, casting an ineligible vote, voting twice, voter impersonation fraud and intimidation.

Analysis of the resulting comprehensive News21 election fraud database turned up 10 cases of voter impersonation. With 146 million registered voters in the United States during that time, those 10 cases represent one out of about every 15 million prospective voters.

“Voter fraud at the polls is an insignificant aspect of American elections,” said elections expert David Schultz, professor of public policy at Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minn.

“There is absolutely no evidence that (voter impersonation fraud) has affected the outcome of any election in the United States, at least any recent election in the United States,” Schultz said.

The News21 analysis of its election fraud database shows:

  • In-person voter-impersonation fraud is rare. The database shows 207 cases of other types of fraud for every case of voter impersonation
  • “The fraud that matters is the fraud that is organized. That's why voter impersonation is practically non-existent because it is difficult to do and it is difficult to pull people into conspiracies to do it,” said Lorraine Minnite, professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.

  • There is more fraud in absentee ballots and voter registration than any other categories. The analysis shows 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud and 400 cases of registration fraud. A required photo ID at the polls would not have prevented these cases.
  • “The one issue I think is potentially important, though more or less ignored, is the overuse of absentee balloting, which provides far more opportunity for fraud and intimidation than on-site voter fraud,” said Daniel Lowenstein, a UCLA School of Law professor.

  • Of reported election-fraud allegations in the database whose resolution could be determined, 46 percent resulted in acquittals, dropped charges or decisions not to bring charges.

Minnite says prosecutions are rare. “You have to be able to show that people knew what they were doing and they knew it was wrong and they did it anyway,” she said. “It may be in the end they (prosecutors) can't really show that the people who have cast technically illegal ballots did it on purpose.”

  • Felons or noncitizens sometimes register to vote or cast votes because they are confused about their eligibility. The database shows 74 cases of felons voting and 56 cases of noncitizens voting.
  • Voters make a lot of mistakes, from accidentally voting twice to voting in the wrong precinct.
  • Election officials make a lot mistakes, from clerical errors — giving voters ballots when they’ve already voted  — to election workers confused about voters’ eligibility requirements.

U.S. elections system is weak

“I don't think there is a mature democracy that has as bad of an elections system as we do,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of political science and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “We have thousands of electoral jurisdictions, we have non-professionals running our elections, we have partisans running our elections, we have lack of uniformity.”

Voter-impersonation fraud has attracted intense attention in recent years as conservatives and Republicans argue that strict voter ID laws are needed to prevent widespread fraud.

The case has been made repeatedly by the Republican National Lawyers Association, one of whose missions is to advance “open, fair and honest elections.” It has compiled a list of 375 election fraud cases, based mostly on news reports of alleged fraud.

News21 examined the RNLA cases in the database and found only 77 were alleged fraud by voters. Of those, News21 could verify convictions or guilty pleas in only 33 cases. The database shows no RNLA cases of voter-impersonation fraud.

Civil-rights and voting-rights activists condemn the ID laws as a way of disenfranchising minorities, students, senior citizens and the disabled.

In a video that went viral in June, Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s House majority leader, spoke approvingly at a Republican State Committee meeting of the state’s new voter ID law "which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done."

His spokesman said Turzai meant that Pennsylvania’s election would be fair and free of fraud because of the new ID law. Democrats, however, said Turzai meant the law, signed in March, would suppress Democratic votes.

Voter ID laws threaten to disenfranchise millions

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of State and the Department of Transportation, as many as 758,000 people, about 9 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters, currently don’t have the identification that now will be required at the polling place.

Even if 90 percent of those voters got the correct identification by Nov. 6, that still could leave 75,800 voters disenfranchised. 

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the ID law violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minorities, according to a July 23 letter to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele.

A coalition of civil-rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Pennsylvania in state court, arguing the voter ID law would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The trial began July 25. 

In a pretrial document released by the ACLU, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, represented by the state Attorney General’s Office, could not identify any cases of voter impersonation at the polls.

The state said it would offer no evidence that “in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania or elsewhere” or that “in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of a photo ID law.”

Pennsylvania officials, who responded to the News21 public record requests, also reported no cases of Election Day voter-impersonation fraud since 2000.

“This law is a solution solving a problem that does not exist,” Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes told an Aug. 1 teleconference hosted by New America Media, a group representing the ethnic media. Hughes called the law partisan and, echoing Turzai, said its purpose is “to elect Mitt Romney.”

The News21 database shows one of the rare instances of voter-impersonation fraud occurred in Londonderry, N. H., in 2004 when 17-year-old Mark Lacasse used his father’s name to vote for George W. Bush in the Republican presidential primary. The case was dismissed after Lacasse performed community service.

The database shows the nine other voter impersonation cases were in Alabama, California, Colorado, Kansas and Texas. All were isolated and showed no coordinated efforts to change election results.

GOP legislators pushing ID laws

Republican-dominated legislatures — with the exception of Rhode Island where Democrats passed a photo ID law — have considered 62 ID bills since 2010.

Nine states — South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama — passed strict voter ID laws.

Only the Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kansas measures are likely to be in effect in November. The Pennsylvania law has been challenged in state court.

Rhode Island’s more lenient law will take effect in 2014. Indiana and Georgia were the first states to pass strict voter-ID laws, enacted in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Few laws regulate absentee ballots, although the News21 analysis shows this is one of the most frequent instances of fraud.

“It makes much more sense if you are trying to steal an election by either manipulating results on the back end through election official misconduct or to use absentee ballots, which are easier to control and to maintain,” said Hasen, the UC, Irvine, professor of political science.

The News21 analysis shows 185 election fraud cases linked to campaign officials or politicians involving absentee or mail-in ballots.

In 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court invalidated East Chicago Democratic Mayor Rob Pastrick’s primary victory because of massive fraud. Pastrick, an eight-term incumbent, lost in a 2004 repeat election.

Absentee ballots create problems

Forty-six people, mainly city workers, were found guilty in a wide-ranging conspiracy to purchase votes through the use of absentee ballots.

John Fortier, a political scientist at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said there are “more direct problems” with absentee ballots because the person casting the ballot can be pressured or coerced.

Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a public policy group that opposed many of the voting-law changes nationally, recognizes that absentee-ballot fraud occurs more than other election fraud, but still doesn’t consider it a threat.

“There are more concerns in terms of absentee fraud but, again, it is easier to catch,” she said.

Minnite, the Rutgers University professor who researched election fraud from 2006-2010 for her book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” agrees with Gaskins.

"Corruption works when it’s organized. If we see more cases of absentee-ballot fraud than, say, voter-impersonation fraud, it still doesn't mean that voters individually are motivated to do it,” she explains. “It just means that absentee balloting might present some greater opportunities for people who are organizing conspiracies to corrupt elections."

The News21 analysis shows 34 states had at least one case of registration fraud — many were associated with third-party voter registration groups.

ACORN often cited by voter ID backers

The most noteworthy involved the voter registration group, Association for Community Organization and Reform Now (ACORN).

The group, which endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, became the target of conservative activist James O’Keefe, who produced deceptively edited videos that suggested ACORN employees were encouraging criminal behavior.

Voter-ID supporters often cite ACORN as evidence that voter fraud is a problem. The scandal resulted in at least 22 convictions in seven states and the collapse of the organization in 2010 after Congress and private donors pulled their funding.

This type of fraud is a concern because third-party voter-registration groups generally pay for each signature. Critics argue that is an incentive to write in false names and break the law.

Both sides of the debate agree voter-registration rolls are outdated and should be cleaned up. They disagree on whether problems with the rolls lead to fraudulent votes being cast.

'Mickey Mouse registers but never votes'

“Mickey Mouse has been registered hundreds of times but Mickey has never turned up on Election Day to vote,” Hasen said. The News21 database shows 393 cases involving ineligible voters, typically felons, noncitizens or people voting in the wrong jurisdictions. There were guilty verdicts in 159 cases.

Sometimes, felons and non-citizens were not aware that they didn’t have voting rights, as in the case of Derek Little in Wisconsin, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The database shows the case was dismissed because prosecutors learned that Little identified himself at the polls with his prison ID.

Double voting occurs in isolated instances and often involves absentee ballots. However, few cases in the database reveal any coordinated effort to change election results. Often, the double vote was a mistake.

Claudel Gilbert, who had changed his address in Ohio in 2007, received two registration cards in the mail and believed he had to vote in both places for his vote to count. In four other cases, people were accused of double voting for filling out their ballot and their spouse’s.

Some advocates of voter-ID laws say voter fraud is used to “steal” federal elections.

But the only so-called theft case in the News21 database involved four Indiana Democratic party officials accused in 2008 of forging signatures on petitions to get Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the state primary ballot. No one was convicted.

Many experts agree the elections system is inefficient and that this leads to mistakes and clerical errors that are lumped under “voter fraud.”

Confused voters, elections officials

The News21 database showed that election-fraud cases often were the result of mistakes by confused voters or elections officials.

For example, Leland Duane Lewis, an 89-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., in 2011, requested — and got — a second ballot after mistakenly turning in his first one and realizing it was only half-completed.

Tom Brett, an election worker from Georgia, was accused in 2009 of not being on duty during early and absentee voting.

Schultz, the Hamline University professor who has written extensively about election fraud, said voting rules could be clarified for voters and there should be better training for election officials.

“If somebody is ineligible to vote because they are a felon, for example, or an ex-felon, making that clear to them, in terms of they can't vote until such and such a time,” Schultz said. “And the same thing with election officials ... making it clear to them regarding what the rules are regarding who is eligible and who is not eligible.”

Many voter-ID supporters continue to argue that the measures are needed to prevent voter-impersonation fraud to ensure the integrity of elections, although fewer than five-tenths of one percent of the total cases in the News21 analysis are voter impersonation.

Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based policy center, is a staunch supporter of voter-ID laws. He said “there’s no way to detect” voter-impersonation fraud unless states have voter-ID laws.

Bill Denny, a Mississippi Republican state representative elected in 1987, sponsored that state’s voter-ID bill — awaiting pre-clearance by the Justice Department — because he thinks voter impersonation is a problem even if there have been few prosecutions.

“Whether you have proof of it or not,” he added, “what in the heavens is wrong with showing an ID at polls?”

Minnite, the Rutgers professor, is worried that lawmakers could disenfranchise voters who don’t obtain the correct IDs and are prohibited from voting in November based on a problem that barely exists. 

“Voter fraud is not a problem (so) the solution should not be to address voter fraud,” Minnite said.

Getting IDs harder for poor people

She said it could be especially burdensome for poor people to obtain the correct documents to get an ID — even for a free ID that some states with new ID laws are providing.

Minnite asked whether voting rights for "thousands of people should be sacrificed ... where there is absolutely no basis for (voter ID) in the first place.”

Civil-rights groups compare the voter-ID laws to Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and literacy tests designed to keep blacks from voting in the past.

“It's simply a new big burden on the backs of people who just want to have their voices heard during elections,” said Eddie Hailes, managing director and general counsel of the Advancement Project, a civil-rights group challenging voter-ID laws in Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The Justice Department denied the Texas voter-ID law — which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder likened to a poll tax— on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.

The state pre-emptively sued the Justice Department for the right to implement the law and arguments were heard by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., in July. Earlier this month, the Texas and the Wisconsin voter ID laws were struck down.

Not all supporters of the laws think voter-impersonation fraud is a major problem. Not all opponents think the laws will suppress millions of votes.

Elections reform needed

Trey Grayson, the former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who is director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, supports voter ID but also thinks election reform should “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

He suggests voter-identification laws could be paired with Election Day registration.

“People who don’t get registered 30 days out could still come in and register on the day of the election,” he said. “And a voter ID, that could give you the confidence that this person really is who she says she is and allow her to vote.”

Grayson criticizes many opponents of voter-identification laws, suggesting that their focus on voter suppression may have an adverse effect on turnout.

"One of the criticisms I would have of the attorney general (Eric Holder) and others who have made this a big deal,” he said, “is, by raising the issue and the way they are raising it, rather than trying to go around and get people IDs, sort of raising the specter of all this, they may also be suppressing the vote with their reaction to it." 

Grayson said there is potential to have comprehensive election reform without partisan politics.

“You could take ideas from the left and the right,” he said. “You could have a better system.”

Alex Remington of News21 contributed to this article.

Natasha Khan was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow this summer at News21.