Allegations of voter fraud make great headlines, but are generally false. These allegations are based on “feelings” instead of data. The claims are ultimately stoked by the interest of incumbent politicians and political parties seeking to suppress the vote when greater voter turnout does not favor their odds.
The maximum occurrence of voter fraud in the United States between 2000 and 2014 has been calculated at 0.0000031%.
We typically see the mobilization efforts of political parties. What we often do not see, are their demobilization efforts. According to Groarke, both methods are equally important during an election cycle (Groarke 2016). We see an example of a demobilization effort when voter requirements become more stringent in response to allegations of “voter fraud”.
Groarke studied three campaigns to improve voter turnout and the allegations waged against these efforts in the name of “voter fraud”. Groarke found that the representative’s tenure and propensity to want more “unreliable voters” in their district influenced their political calculus.
There was an observed difference between northern and southern Democrats in response to each effort. Some Republicans even initially supported these efforts, but eventually retreated from these positions.
Postcard Registration Bills (1971 – 1976) introduced by Senator Gale McGee (D-WY)
The arguments against the legislation:
- Registration of unqualified persons
- Registration of nonexistent persons
- Postcard registration cost
- Danger of federal intrusion into election process
- Nonvoters are naturally uninterested in politics
Minnesota and Maryland served as a case example of how postcard registration improved voter turnout. Between the two, a single case of fraud was determined during the registration leading up to the 1974 election. In exchange for that one case of fraud, registration increased by 1.5% from the previous voting period and was a cheap way to increase participation (Ford Foundation 715).
Election Day Registration (~1976) introduced by President Jimmy Carter and VP Mondale
The arguments against the legislation:
- Endangers the integrity of franchise
- Serious threats of fraud even if voters showed identification while registering
- Increased federal regulation and would discourage participation
Minnesota had allowed same day voter registration since 1973. Between 1972 and 1976, the percentage of the population actively voting increased from 68.4% to 71.4%. 22.9% of these voters took advantage of their ability to register on election day. In 1976, Minnesota has the highest voter turnout in the nation (Smolka 26).
Groarke once again noticed that the largest opponents of same day election registration were Republicans or Southern Democrats who were incumbent members of Congress within “safe” districts (578-580).
The beginnings of the Motor Voter Law (mid to late 1970s, 1980s)
The arguments against the legislation:
- People who really want to vote will find a way (comparing voters in El Salvador to those in the U.S.)
If effective, the Motor Voter Law would have required states to offer Election Day registration, mail registration, and ensure that government agencies offered voter registration and the ability to update existing registration. The initial movement also did not include provisions for “non-voter purging”.
Although Election Day Registration failed, some states opted to use mail registration and have government agencies assist in registering and updating existing voter information. The Reagan administration fought Motor Voter Laws with the Hatch Act. Litigation tied the ability of the government agencies to consistently offer voter registration and updates to existing registration. This law became known as the “Motor Voter Law” because essentially only motor vehicle agencies were seamlessly incorporating voter registration as part of their processes (582).
In the 1980s, certain portions of the population tended to live in cities while others lived in the suburbs. This translates into the need for a driver’s license.
Today, the reality is much different than it was in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder is not readily available for the 1980s. It would require more time to juxtapose a snapshot of 1980 and 2015. I could also then see if the changes are statistically significant.
Proponents of the law had to negotiate to win over opponents. Penalties were included for the alleged fraudulent registration. Same day registrants were also segregated and further scrutinized before their votes were counted (Groarke 585 – 586).
The mail delivery service is not consistent in all communities. This became a problem when a mailing purge was suggested to occur every two years. Voters that did not respond to the mailer would be removed from the voting list.
National Voter Registration Act – (1993) President Clinton and Rep. Al Swift (D-WA)
The Motor Voter Law reemerges and undergoes significant changes. Election Day registration is dropped and voter list maintenance requirements were added. It was also no longer considered mandatory for unemployment agencies to offer voter registration.
Some states threw up roadblocks, by requiring two separate registration processes for voting in state versus national elections.
Groarke reminds us that political parties exert equal efforts to mobilize and demobilize potential voters. Her Table 3 shows how many voter removals there are annually in percentage terms of voting applications. The purging process has been implemented nationally thanks to the National Voter Registration Act. During the first year, a name is identified “to be purged”. If the potential voter has not communicated with voter registration by year two, they are purged from the voting rolls.
With the emphasis on “fraud”, we must remind ourselves that those who might want to commit fraud probably do a simple cost versus benefit analysis. What is the incremental benefit of one vote against the fines and prison sentences if the one fraudulent vote is discovered? Levitt argues that the incremental vote is not worth the fines and penalties for a rational agent (Levitt 2007).
Instead, we should consider other rationale for mistakes made at the polls. Some of these possibilities are:
- Clerical or typographical errors (ie: signing the wrong line or choosing an identical or almost identical name)
- First and last names or parts of street number addresses are inverted
- Incomplete written data matches with another person (ie: consider middle initials)
- Common names are prone to being flagged and purged
- Certain birthdates are more common than others (ie: Check out this article about the probability of you being born on a given day.)
- Voters move and can be registered at two addresses, but only vote once.
- Voters can begin filling out a form on election day, make a mistake, be given another form, and an election official can accidently count the discarded form again.
- Voters can vote before an election and die by the time the vote is confirmed.
- The right to vote for felons is not consistent across all states. In some states once you are released, your right to vote is restored. In others, you must go through a process to regain your right to vote. In addition, misdemeanor offenders retain the right to vote.
- “Caging” efforts to purge voters are not always effective. This is a tactic used to see which postcards are returned by the USPS. Sometimes the potential voter is out of the country or their area is poorly serviced by the USPS.
- Just because an address is unusual does not mean it is illegitimate. Homeless persons can register their address as the local shelter and business owners can live in the same building as their business.
Levitt calculates overall documented fraud rates in the following states:
- Missouri: 0.0003%
- New Hampshire: 0.0000%
- New Jersey: 0.0002%
- New York: 0.000009%
- Wisconsin: 0.0000%
In a Washington Post article Levitt reports 31 incidents of voter fraud in all general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014 (Levitt 2014). These 31 incidents occurred out of over 1 billion ballots cast during these 12 years. Some of fraud allegations have not been fully investigated, which may indicate that they are falsely being flagged as “fraud”.