Claims of election fraud have become a prominent feature in the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. He has repeatedly warned that the election will be “stolen” from him — especially in black, urban neighborhoods where he has less support. “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” he tweeted on October 17.
The assertions could undermine the legitimacy of the election result and of the eventual winner.
Fears about electoral fraud resonate broadly. A September 2016 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of registered voters believe it happens “often.” These voters are often divided along party lines. Among Trump supporters, that number rises to 69 percent; it is 28 percent among supporters of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. An August 2016 Gallup poll found a similar split. Overall, faith in fair elections appears to be slipping: Since 2004, expectations that presidential elections will be tallied accurately have dropped from about 70 percent to 63 percent, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll.
But how common is electoral fraud in the United States? And could misconduct at the polls swing a result?
Data on the rare cases of fraud
Multiple studies using different methodologies have found voter fraud occurs so rarely that it could not have an impact on results. In 2016, Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt wrote in the Washington Post that he had found 31 credible allegations of fraud among some 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014 (and he expected some of those 31 to be debunked).
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, in a September 2014 report to Congress, noted that without a central data source for fraud reporting, it cannot make valid conclusions about the frequency of fraud. It did add, though, that the Department of Justice had noted “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation […] anywhere in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.”
Looking at returns from the 2012 general election, John Ahlquist and colleagues, writing in the Election Law Journal, found no evidence of fraudulent vote casting or vote buying.
Voter ID Laws
Those who fear fraud often propose voter-identification requirements as a solution. Over 30 states have some sort of voter-identification law, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. These laws require registered voters to provide identification (or in some cases merely allow the poll worker to ask for ID, even if it is not required) in order to receive a ballot on Election Day. The 2016 Gallup poll mentioned above found that 95 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats favor voter-ID requirements. A 2012 Pew poll found similar results.
But scholars say such laws target minorities (who often vote Democrat) because “minorities are less likely than whites to have acceptable identification,” according to a 2015 review in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego have found that voter ID laws have a negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, African Americans and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections, skewing elections toward whites and Republicans.
Indeed, in July 2016 a federal judge squashed a North Carolina voter-ID law introduced by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The judge said the law targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” in an effort to discourage their turnout at the polls. The law was written in 2013 after the Supreme Court threw out a provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had given federal authorities the right to oversee changes in election protocol in counties with a history of racial discrimination.
Fraud as partisan spin
Belief in electoral fraud is strongly associated with membership in the Republican Party.
Margaret Groarke of Manhattan College argues in Political Science Quarterly that concerns about voter fraud are “a partisan strategy to constrict the electorate,” specifically to stop minorities from voting. She chronicles how fear of fraud has derailed legislative efforts across decades to make registration easier for eligible Americans, with Republican lawmakers largely against and Democrats largely for.
Brian Fogarty of the University of Glasgow and colleagues argue that calls for voter-ID laws — generally from Republican voters and legislators — are part of a push by conservative party operatives to stoke perceptions of fraud, placing fraud on the political agenda to “motivate their voting base ahead of the election.”
Evidence is available to support that claim. “Behind closed doors, some Republicans freely admit that stoking false fears of electoral fraud is part of their political strategy,” The New York Times reported in September 2016. “In a recently disclosedemail from 2011, a Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin wrote to colleagues about a very close election for a seat on the State Supreme Court. ‘Do we need to start messaging “widespread reports of election fraud” so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?’ he wrote. ‘I obviously think we should.’”
Journalist’s Resource has profiled a number of relevant studies, including work on the factors impacting minority voter turnout, voter-ID laws, the rights of voters and on electoral integrity around the world.
At New York University, the Brennan Center for Justice has a list of recent scholarship on voter ID laws as well as other resources helpful for journalists writing about voting rights or the risk of fraud.
The News 21 program at Arizona State University keeps a database of alleged instances of voter fraud. It tallied 2,068 cases of alleged election fraud between 2000 and 2012. Of those, only 10 could have been prevented with voter-ID legislation.
For a more global perspective, there is The Electoral Integrity Project, run out of the University of Sydney and Harvard.
More research and sources: Voter fraud, perceptions and political spin: Research roundup – Journalist’s Resource Journalist’s Resource