Americans’ interest in voting by mail has surged this year as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. Allegations of double voting in the southern U.S. state of Georgia have further fueled a politically fraught debate over voter fraud ahead of the November presidential election.
This week, Georgia’s top election official announced that as many as 1,000 voters may have double voted in the state’s primary elections in June, showing up at the polls to vote after mailing in their ballots.
Although the attempted double voting was caught and did not change voting tallies, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, said he wanted each case investigated and prosecuted if determined to be illegal.
Scrutiny of double voting – a felony in Georgia as in most other states – comes amid a larger debate over voter fraud and whether efforts to combat it constitute a safeguarding of the democratic process or partisan voter suppression.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that voting by mail is prone to widespread fraud that would benefit his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden. Indeed, Trump has urged his supporters to attempt to vote twice in the November 3 general election – once by mail and again at the polls on Election Day – to demonstrate such fraud is feasible.
But voting rights advocates say there is little evidence of rampant voter fraud. During Georgia’s chaotic primary elections, they say, confusion may have led officials to incorrectly count some votes as “voting twice.”
“We wholeheartedly agree that people who intentionally vote twice should be subject to the usual criminal penalties for election law violations,” Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said in a statement. “But we are concerned that voters who were simply trying to vote may get caught up in the dragnet.”
While Democrats and voting rights groups say voter fraud is exceedingly rare, many Republicans contend it is more prevalent than is commonly known and dilutes the will of legitimate voters at the ballot box.
Here are four things you need to know about the debate over voter fraud:
What is voter fraud?
Voter fraud covers many actions, from casting illegitimate ballots to vote buying to impersonating a voter.
Yet there is no universally agreed-upon definition of the practice.
Voting rights activists have a relatively narrow definition. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, voting fraud “occurs when individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote, in an attempt to defraud the election system.”
Conservatives prefer a more expansive definition. The Government Accountability Institute, a think tank co-founded by conservative political strategist Steve Bannon, defines it as “illegal interference in the process of an election” and lists things like “fraudulent addresses” and “registration fraud” among voter fraud types.
This lack of consensus means that what election integrity advocates may see as an instance of fraud, voting rights advocates might view as a clerical error or an honest mistake.
Types of voter fraud
Voter fraud can take many different forms. The conservative Heritage Foundation has tracked nine different types of election fraud.
The most common type in the foundation's voter fraud database is voting by people ineligible to vote, such as noncitizens and convicted felons.
Another common voter fraud type: absentee ballot fraud or obtaining an absentee ballot and filling it out without the knowledge of the actual voter.
Other types of election fraud in the database include voter impersonation, vote buying, ballot petition fraud, duplicate voting and false registrations.
How widespread is voter fraud?
This is a politically charged question.
The Heritage Foundation’s database includes 1,296 “proven instances of voter fraud” out of the hundreds of millions of votes cast going back to 1992. Of those cases identified, 1,120 resulted in criminal convictions.
The cases include a North Carolina Republican operative and several others who were accused of ballot tampering in connection with a 2018 congressional race. Not included in the database is the recent indictment in North Carolina of 19 noncitizens accused of illegally voting in the 2016 election.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former member of Trump’s now-defunct election integrity commission, says the database is merely “the tip of the iceberg.”
“There's actually more fraud occurring out there than actually gets reported and prosecuted,” von Spakovsky said.
Yet little hard evidence of widespread voter fraud has turned up.
After the 2016 election, Trump alleged that as many as 5 million illegal votes had been cast for his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. But an election integrity commission he formed to investigate the matter did not turn up evidence of widespread fraud. Multiple independent studies by academic researchers and news outlets similarly found no proof of rampant fraud in the election.
“It doesn’t happen often at all,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor Loyola Law School and a voting expert. “But when it happens it’s a one-off: One person decides to file a false ballot or something like that.”
Levitt keeps track of voter impersonation and says it's extremely rare.
“I’m up to 45 since 2000, and in that time there has been more than a billion and a half votes cast,” Levitt said.
Other types of voting fraud such as voting by noncitizens are equally rare, according to researchers.
Last year, Texas officials announced that they'd found the names of nearly 100,000 "possible noncitizens" on their voter registrations rolls and that as many as 58,000 of them may have voted in elections over the previous 22-year period. But the state dropped a review of the cases in the face of legal challenges.
Voting by mail
Trump and his Republican allies oppose voting by mail, saying ballots in the mail system can be stolen, fabricated and otherwise fraudulently used.
But voting rights advocates say this doesn’t mean voting by mail is any less secure. Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – have successfully adopted universal mail balloting while detecting only a small amount of double voting or voter impersonation.
“Despite (a) dramatic increase in mail voting over time, fraud rates remain infinitesimally small,” the Brennan Center said in a recent report. “None of the five states that hold their elections primarily by mail has had any voter fraud scandals since making that change.”