Is the System Rigged?: Research on Voter Fraud

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The fear and accusations of voter fraud have almost become a staple of U.S. presidential elections. Granted, other countries require some form of identification to vote, which seems to genuinely be about fraud prevention versus some kind of bigotry as is often claimed here in America. Nonetheless, just as the stories about racist voter ID proponents are likely exaggerated, so are the concerns over voter fraud. As Reason‘s Ronald Bailey explains,

Voter impersonation fraud appears to be almost non-existent. In the wake of 2000’s ballot-counting fiasco, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to improve voting systems and voter access. In 2007, the commission issued its Election Crimes report, which reviewed what data there was and analyzed numerous anecdotes about voter fraud. The report noted that many experts “asserted that impersonation of voters is probably the least frequent type of fraud because it is the most likely type of fraud to be discovered, there are stiff penalties associated with this type of fraud, and it is an inefficient method of influencing an election.” The penalties include $10,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

The New York Times reported in 2007 that a five-year Department of Justice crackdown on voter fraud had yielded just 86 convictions. In 2014, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, reported finding just 31 cases of voter impersonation fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. Politifact calculated in 2015 that you are 13 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to stumble across an instance of in-person voter fraud in Texas.

Yet, could voter ID laws potentially be used to–ironically–rig elections? The evidence is mixed, but interesting. Some studies found an increase in voter turnout following strict voter ID laws among particular groups, while others found a decrease in voter turnout. Overall, the effects of voter ID laws seem to be insignificant according to most studies. However, the most recent research has

challenged the weak consensus that strict voter ID requirements do not appear to have significant disenfranchising effects. Trying to account for all sorts of demographic, partisan, ideological, and ethnic variables, the researchers examined what happened to voting patterns before and after states adopted strict voter ID requirements. Their analysis focused on individual voter turnout data from 2006 to 2014 derived from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

…When they take partisan and ideological differences into account, they estimate that Democratic turnout drops by 8.8 percentage points in general elections and even Republican turnout drops by 3.6 points. Interestingly, strict photo ID requirements result in a drop in turnout for strong liberals of 7.9 percentage points, but among strong conservatives turnout increases by 4.8 percentage points. “Strict voter ID laws appear to diminish the participation of Democrats and those on the left, while doing little to deter the vote of Republicans and those on the right,” they observe.

In short, voting fraud isn’t really a problem, but voter ID laws could potentially be (though the consensus still holds that the effects are nilch). Perhaps we should all calm down.

2 thoughts on “Is the System Rigged?: Research on Voter Fraud”

  1. I think it’s relevant — the courts think it is relevant — that some(?) recent voter ID laws were *intended* to have a differential effect. To me it shifts the burden substantially, over to “prove it doesn’t work that way” and away from “weak consensus of no effect.”

  2. I think recent research demonstrating that voter ID laws “diminish the participation of Democrats and those on the left” is incredibly relevant. Future research may find even more substantial evidence of this. Bailey concludes his article by stating, “It is not a coincidence that all but one of the stricter voter ID laws have been adopted by states in which the legislatures are dominated by Republicans and signed by Republican governors. Stricter voter ID laws don’t prevent election rigging; they are instead an attempt at election rigging. Trump is a nominal Republican, so it is not a surprise that he favors laws that he believes will rig the election his way.” However, intentions and outcomes aren’t the same and I’m more interested in the latter. Most studies find that the laws have little impact either way (though I’m fairly convinced by the latest research that it does) and that’s important to note.

    My point is that evidence on the whole for voter fraud and voter disenfranchisement are both fairly low. While I could be wrong, I think most people calling for voter ID laws genuinely believe that voter fraud is a problem, even though it’s not. On the flip side, if the point of these laws is to suppress minority voters, several studies show that it is not a very effective tool. So both sides should probably cool their jets.

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