Why would anyone commit voter fraud?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 26 2010 7:13 PM

Fake the Vote

Why would anyone commit voter fraud?

Ballot box. Click image to expand.
A voter at the ballot box.

Another election, another round of voter fraud allegations.

Republicans and Democrats—also known as the voter-fraud police and the voter-fraud-police police—are already manning their stations. David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, says that attempts to commit voter fraud are under way. Michelle Malkin announced on Fox News on Monday that "we are all voter-fraud police now." Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, attributed the Democratic lead among early ballot voters to the fact that there's "less ballot security" in areas where Democratic voters dominate.

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In response, Tea Party groups and other organizations on the right are recruiting poll monitors to make sure no shenanigans take place. A Tea Party group in St. Paul has even offered a $500 reward for information that leads to a successful prosecution for voter fraud. In Milwaukee, billboards show people behind bars with the caption, "We Voted Illegally." Liberals, meanwhile, warn that conservative attempts to monitor the polls will intimidate voters and suppress turnout.

No one denies that ginning up fear about systematic voter fraud is an effective political tactic. It appeals to an electorate suspicious of government and helps delegitimize any victories that can be attributed to the overenfranchisement of minorities, i.e. Democratic voters. But no one should believe that voter fraud is a widespread problem.

In 2002, the Bush administration made cracking down on voter fraud a top priority. Five years later, the effort had yielded 86 convictions. About 30 convictions were linked to vote-buying schemes in races for small offices like sheriff or judge. Only 26 were attributable to individual voters, and most of those were misunderstandings about voter eligibility, such as felons who voted without knowing it was illegal. The prosecutions provided little evidence of organized fraud.

A 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reached a similar conclusion. The vast majority of "fraud" cases, it found, were due to typographical errors in poll books and registration records, bad matches between voter databases (for example, you could be listed as John Smith in one database and John T. Smith in another), and voters registering at new addresses without deleting old registrations. Much of the alleged "voter fraud," it turns out, is just poorly filled out registration cards. And even if someone purposely files a fraudulent form by writing the name "Mickey Mouse," it doesn't affect the election. "Mickey Mouse doesn't vote," says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Institute. Actual voter fraud—a voter pretending to be someone he's not—is, according to the study, less common than getting struck by lightning.

Perhaps the strongest evidence against claims of widespread voter fraud is that it would make no sense. Imagine what you'd have to do to perpetrate such a scheme. You'd first have to recruit a large number of voters willing to cooperate, each of whom would risk five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Then you'd have to get them all registered, which would require fake IDs and mailing addresses. (The mailing address would have to be real so they could receive their registration cards.) The names and addresses would then get checked against a central state database. If the database fails to find a match, the voter's registration gets flagged for a follow-up check of their Social Security Number or driver's license number. Then on Election Day, they'd have to show their fake ID again and lie to a poll worker's face. At each point—registration, the database check, voting—they'd run the risk of getting caught. And the more people involved in the scheme, the more likely someone slips up. All it would take is one unlucky person for the whole plan to unravel.

And for what? The prospect of winning a few extra votes for a candidate you support simply isn't worth the risk of jail time. (This is especially true for illegal immigrants, who want to vote even if it means risking deportation, according to some anti-fraud crusaders.) And for large organizations, there are much better, safer, more efficient ways to steal an election, such as bribing an election official or tampering with voting machines. The punishment is just as harsh, but those methods require the participation of fewer people.

What's most confusing is how poll monitors would prevent fraud from occurring. Guidelines on "what to watch for" posted by the group Election Integrity Watch tell poll monitors to look out for buses, noncitizen voters, and voters with multiple ballots. But there's little they can do if voters simply create fake identities, which any large-scale systematic fraud would require.

There's nothing wrong with preventing voter fraud, just as there's nothing wrong with preventing alien attacks. First make sure the problem is worth your time.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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