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┬áversus 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.