Voter Fraud: A Red Herring

From Harvard’s Kennedy School, released November 6, 2020:

Proponents of stricter voting laws often claim restrictions are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but there is little evidence to support this assertion. President Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that widespread voter fraud was committed by his opponents in the 2016 election, asserting that “there were three to five million illegal votes cast in the 2016 election.”102 On November 27, 2016, the President tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”103 On January 25, 2017, Trump tweeted: “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and….even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”104 The White House produced no evidence to support these claims, which seem to have been intended to encourage regulation to suppress voting, not combat fraud.

Claims of widespread voter fraud have been made without evidence by other Republican officials. Kris Kobach, former Secretary of State of Kansas, has been outspoken campaigner against voter fraud – for example, claiming without evidence that “fraudulent votes tipped the election in Minnesota for (former Senator Al) Franken.”105 In 2005, the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee stated in a report that “voter fraud continues to plague our nation’s federal elections, diluting and canceling out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans.”106 The report contained no credible evidence to back up the claim.

Since 2018, there have continued to be multiple accusations of election fraud again presented without evidence. In the 2018 elections, there were allegations of fraud in Florida and Arizona made by Republican politicians. In Florida’s Senate race, Republican Rick Scott filed a lawsuit alleging “rampant fraud” in the counties that heavily favor Democrats because the counties took longer to tally the votes.107 The lawsuit led to a Broward County Circuit judge ordering the Broward County Supervisor of Elections to release records requested by Scott and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee related to voting tabulations. The records released did not include any evidence to support the accusations of fraud, and the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, did not receive or observe any credible evidence of fraud or criminal activity.108

In Arizona’s 2018 Senate race, the Arizona Republican Party accused the Maricopa County Recorder of “premeditated destruction of evidence” after “voting irregularities” in the election. However, no evidence of voter fraud was produced and Republican Martha McSally conceded the race to Democrat Krysten Synema. In Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin claimed that there were a “number of significant irregularities” and “thousands of absentee ballots that were illegally counted” in the November 2019 gubernatorial election.109 No evidence was produced to back up this claim and Bevin eventually conceded the race after losing a recount.110

Bipartisan studies have concluded that there has been little evidence of widespread voter fraud in modern American elections. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has compiled a nationwide database of charges of voter fraud over 37 years (from 1982 to 2019). During this period, 1,085 charges resulted in criminal convictions, an average of just 29 convictions nationally per year.111 A 2017 national voting study by the Brennan Center for Justice, an academic policy center and think tank, concluded very few noncitizens voted in the 2016 election. Across 42 jurisdictions studied, election officials who oversaw the tabulation of 23.5 million votes referred only an estimated 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting for further investigation or prosecution. In other words, improper noncitizen votes accounted for 0.0001% of the 2016 votes in those jurisdictions.112 Forty of the jurisdictions — all but two of the 42 studied — reported no known incidents of noncitizen voting in 2016. In the ten counties with the largest populations of noncitizens in 2016, only one reported any instances of noncitizen voting, consisting of fewer than 10 votes.

In California, Virginia and New Hampshire — the states where President Trump claimed the problem of noncitizen voting was especially acute — no official identified an incident of noncitizen voting in 2016.

In 2002, the Justice Department established the Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative to prosecute voter fraud. From 2002 to 2006, just 86 people across the country were convicted of ballot fraud offenses.113 Voter fraud convictions were an infinitesimal part of the overall vote of more than 110 million votes cast nationwide.

In February 2017, President Trump established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate voter fraud in the 2016 election. The Commission found no significant evidence of voter fraud and was disbanded in January 2018 after it became the target of eight lawsuits accusing it of violating federal laws ranging from transparency to discrimination.114 Documents released from the lawsuits, including e-mails and PowerPoint presentations from the two meetings held by the panel, contained no evidence of widespread voter fraud.115, 116 A 2017 study published in the Electoral Studies Journal examined President Trump’s accusations of voter fraud by looking closely at three states where Trump claimed such fraud took place: New Hampshire, Virginia, and California. The study found “little evidence consistent with widespread and systematic fraud, . . . no evidence of problems in the vein raised by Donald Trump, . . . [and] no suspicious patterns in result timing” that would imply a “rigged” election.117 The study’s results were “consistent with various state-level investigations conducted in the initial months of 2017, all of which have failed to find any evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 General Election.”118

In an earlier preliminary study by The New York Times, 26 states and the District of Columbia reported no credible allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election, and eight states reported only one credible allegation. The highest numbers of credible allegations were very low: Tennessee (40 allegations out of 4.3 million votes cast in the primary and general elections) and Georgia (25 allegations out of 4.1 million votes cast in the primary and general elections). There was no evidence of widespread fraud.119 A 2014 study published in the Electoral Law Journal looked for evidence of voter impersonation, the type of fraud targeted by strict voter ID laws and later cited as a basis for President Trump’s short-lived Advisory Commission. The study found few reports of impersonation and concluded that “the proportion of the population reporting voter impersonation is indistinguishable from that reporting abduction by extraterrestrials.”120 (Nor has there been significant evidence of fraud in voting by mail; see section on “Response to the Novel Coronavirus,” below.) In fact, the only significant case of voter fraud in recent years has been the case of a Republican political operative accused of ballot tampering, perjury, and obstruction of justice in connection with the 2018 congressional race in North Carolina. The case is currently pending in state district court.121

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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