by Andrew Cunningham (@AndrewWrites)
On January 25th, shortly after being inaugurated, President Trump announced via Twitter that he would be launching a “major investigation” into purported voter fraud in the 2016 election. Trump has claimed that between 3 and 5 million illegal ballots were cast, a line of rhetoric he began using shortly after the election to explain away his popular vote loss. He and his aides have continued to repeat this and other claims of fraud both in public and in closed-door meetings with members of Congress.
The promised executive order and anti-fraud committee led by Mike Pence haven’t materialized yet—but Trump remains committed to his fraud claims, and repeated them in an interview as recently as March.
It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s voter fraud claims as bluster or an attempt to save face, especially since they appear to be based on a misunderstanding of a 2012 Pew study, a misremembered anecdote, and an untrustworthy source who’s unwilling or unable to show his work. But Trump’s comments are just the latest and largest in a long line of Republican claims about voter fraud, and proving those claims is beside the point. In reality, claims of fraud are used as pretext for making it more difficult to vote, primarily through the use of strict voter ID laws, passed at the state level, that disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning voters.
What’s voter fraud?
There’s more than one kind of voter fraud, including vote-buying, voter intimidation, and stuffing the ballot box. The kinds that get the most attention involve someone impersonating another voter at the polls, voting despite being ineligible, or sending in an absentee ballot that doesn’t belong to them.
That sounds pretty bad.
Yeah! Luckily for us, it doesn’t happen all that often, and the kind of widespread voter impersonation fraud Trump rails against is nonexistent.
As of December, there were four confirmed cases of voter fraud in the 2016 election. Of those, one involved a Florida mayoral race, not the presidential election. And in a bit of Alanis-worthy irony, the other three fraudulent voters were all Republicans—two of whom were confirmed Trump supporters. A fifth case in March actually involved a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who had previously said that “virtually every case of voter fraud I can remember in my lifetime was committed by Democrats.” So much for that.
Data for the 2016 elections is still coming in, but so far the credible cases of fraud are few and far between. Officials in 26 states and Washington DC told the New York Times that there were “no credible allegations of fraudulent voting” within their borders. Eight more states counted just one allegation apiece. In Tennessee, 40 allegations were being investigated out of a total of 4.3 million ballots cast. In Georgia, 25 allegations were being investigated out of 4.1 million ballots cast. That’s just a fraction of a fraction of a percent of all votes, and those numbers only count allegations that were considered credible, not convictions.
"Even the most common types of fraud account for a tiny number of all votes."
That’s pretty far short of Trump’s 3-to-5 million. Even if you include the numbers from years of previous elections, the entire number combined doesn’t come anywhere close.
Between 2000 and 2012, one study found just 31 incidents out of one billion votes cast where voter ID laws favored by Republicans could conceivably have prevented fraud. A five-year investigation of voter fraud headed up by the George W. Bush-era Justice Department found that only 86 people had been convicted of any kind of fraud between 2002 and 2007, and in many cases the fraud was caused by mistakes and misunderstandings rather than malice.
Voter fraud does happen. But even the most common kinds of fraud account for just a tiny number of all votes—not nearly enough to swing or even budge an election. And in-person voter impersonation, the kind of fraud that could actually be prevented by many voter ID laws, happens even less often. Even right-wing sites like Conservapedia don’t dispute that in-person voter fraud is the least common type.
Voter fraud convictions in federal elections come with fines up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison under federal law, and state laws can impose further fines, jail time, and even disenfranchisement. Those penalties, plus the fact that individual fraudsters are unlikely to actually swing an election, are enough to keep most people from trying.
You keep mentioning voter ID laws?
I’m getting to it, hold on.
Ok, ok. So where do claims about massive voter fraud come from, if it’s so rare?
“Voter fraud” is often conflated with voter registration problems. Let’s take the 2012 Pew Research Center study cited by Trump as a case in point. The study does identify several problems with the United States’ “inaccurate, costly, and inefficient” voter registration system:
• 24 million voter registrations in the US, or about one in eight, are either “significantly inaccurate” or “no longer valid.”
• 1.8 million registrations are for deceased voters.
• 2.75 million voters are registered in multiple states.
• 51 million people, or about a quarter of all eligible voters, are unregistered.
The middle two bullet points lead to the most common claims—that dead people who would normally have trouble making it to the polls are somehow casting votes, and that people are casting votes in more than one state.
But just because people are registered in multiple states doesn’t mean they’re voting in all of them. These invalid voter registrations are caused by inefficiencies in an outmoded and largely paper-based registration process, not because voters are being bused in from other states in droves or because armies of zombies are voting for Democrats.
Most voter registration is done on paper, either by mail or at a government building like the DMV, and that information is often entered and updated manually. When people move across state lines, they usually don’t “unregister” at their old address; they simply re-register at their new one. People who die also tend not to unregister themselves, for obvious reasons.
The end result is a lot of cruft that’s hard to clean up. Is it a problem? Of course, and another Pew study from 2010 offers detailed suggestions for a nationwide electronic system that states could implement to reduce costs and increase accuracy. But inaccurate or outdated registrations aren’t the same as fraudulent votes, contrary to what voter fraud scaremongers might suggest.
What do voter ID laws have to do with any of this?
This is where the states come in. Though basic voting rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and further rules have been established by Congress and the courts, broadly speaking it’s up to the states to decide how to run their voting systems. This is even truer since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that had required certain states to get preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws.
"On the surface, voter ID laws sound perfectly reasonable."
Citing voter fraud (or, in some cases, the mere perception of voter fraud), many state governments have taken it upon themselves to require some form of identification at the polls. Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin require voters to show valid photo ID before their vote will be counted, and even more states have looser rules that merely request some form of ID or accept forms other than photo IDs. If they can’t show ID at the time, voters are allowed to cast provisional ballots that are only counted after the voter returns with a valid ID.
That doesn’t sound all that bad.
That’s sort of the point. On its surface, it sounds perfectly reasonable to ask people to prove who they are before they vote. In many cases the photo ID cards are “free,” even!
The main issue is that, just as states are mostly free to establish their own election laws, they can also determine the requirements for getting a photo ID. And those requirements can place an undue burden on voters with limited access to money or transportation.
As of 2012, roughly 11 percent of the US population didn’t have a photo ID. Of those, many live 10 miles or more from their nearest ID-issuing office, and those offices often have limited business hours. If you don’t have a car to drive yourself or if you can’t miss work during the time those offices are open, you’re out of luck.
"When Republicans achieve trifectas in new states, voter ID laws aren't far behind."
And although some forms of voter ID are “free,” driver’s licenses usually aren’t, and the documents required to secure photo IDs also cost money. Birth certificate copies cost between $15 and $30; copies of marriage certificates for married women who have changed their names cost between $5 and $40. Online delivery services for these documents can add a few more dollars to the cost, if you use them. And none of this even accounts for the cases where voters can’t get their birth certificates in the first place.
Thirteen percent of black voters and 10 percent of Hispanic voters lack photo ID, compared to about 5 percent of whites. Fifteen percent of 17-to-20-year-olds and 11 percent of 21-to-24-year-olds also lack photo IDs, regardless of race. And while both Democratic and Republican voters can be affected by these laws, those populations usually lean Democrat, and studies suggest that voter ID laws can suppress Democratic turnout.
It’s no coincidence that these contested laws were all passed into law by Republican state governments. The first major flood of voter ID laws were passed following the Republican wave in 2010. When Republicans achieve trifectas in new states—as they did in Iowa last year—voter ID laws usually aren’t far behind, especially in states with larger black and Latinx populations.
Opponents believe that these hidden costs are tantamount to a poll tax, one of many barriers that popped up in southern states in the decades after the Civil War to suppress newly enfranchised black voters. Poll taxes were originally banned in federal elections by the 24th Amendment in 1964, and in state and local elections by Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections in 1966, but that doesn’t stop state lawmakers from trying to accomplish the same ends with subtler means.
Some voter ID laws have already been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. Last year, an appeals court ruled that a North Carolina voter ID law was written to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” US District Court judge James Peterson threw out a series of voter ID and related requirements in Wisconsin. And a voter ID law in Texas has been working its way through the courts for years—it was most recently declared unlawful on April 10th by the US District Court of Southern Texas.
Voter ID laws often come coupled with other laws that restrict voting. The North Carolina law would have prevented early voting, same-day registration, and pre-registration for teenagers. In Wisconsin, residency requirements were increased, more restrictions were placed on in-person absentee voting, and it’s now harder to host voter registration drives to get eligible voters registered in the first place.
When it comes to restrictive laws passed in the name of preventing voter fraud, we can’t put it better than Peterson did in his ruling: “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
How do we fix these problems?
We won’t be able to rely on the courts exclusively. Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department has already shown its hostility toward voter ID reform by filing a motion to dismiss the Obama-era Justice Department’s claim that the Texas ID law was discriminatory. (Nonetheless, the District Court of Southern Texas recently ruled again that Texas’s law was passed with “discriminatory intent.”) As President Trump appoints more judges, the courts will presumably become less likely to rule against these kinds of laws.
That’s why it’s vitally important for Democrats to be in a position to oppose these laws. Then-Missouri governor Jay Nixon vetoed a voter ID law passed by the Republican state legislature in 2016, though the large Republican majorities in the state legislature overrode the veto—illustrating why flipping individual seats is important even when we can’t flip the entire state legislature.
In cases where we can flip both the governor’s seat and one or both chambers in state legislatures, we can go on the offensive, promoting common-sense legislation that addresses some of the actual problems identified in the 2012 Pew study that Trump likes so much. We can push to modernize registration systems and loosen restrictions, by, for instance, implementing automatic registration, expanding early voting, and moving away from archaic paper-based systems. If you already live in a state with a split government or a Democratic trifecta, you should call your representatives and urge them to adopt these reforms.
What else can I do in the meantime?
The reality of the situation is that voting in 2018 will probably be more difficult in some places than it was in 2016. Republicans have trifectas in 25 of the 50 states, and the courts under Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions can’t be counted on to strike down restrictive voter ID laws.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s crucial to make sure you understand the voter registration and voter ID requirements in your state, that you maintain your own registration, and that you help others register to vote. Organizations like Rock The Vote or Vote.org can help you find the right forms and register online in the states where it’s available.
"A healthy, representative democracy needs input from all its citizens."
The 2017 and 2018 elections are right around the corner. We’ll have the opportunity to turn New Jersey and Virginia bluer this year, and there will be 24 Republican governors’ seats up for grabs in 2018.
As we flip state legislatures and governor’s seats, we can push to make registration and voting as easy as possible for all eligible voters. This shouldn’t solely be a Democratic or Republican issue. Only 60.2 percent percent of eligible voters turned out in 2016, and just 36.4 percent cast a vote in 2014’s midterm elections.
A healthy, representative democracy needs input from all its citizens. We can’t let nonsensical fears of undead voters stuffing ballot boxes deter us from that goal. Improving our system starts with making it easier to vote—not by disenfranchising people based on fearmongering and bogus claims.
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