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The simple truth about voter fraud

Voter fraud is very rare. That hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from freaking out about it anyway.

Even after he won the election, Donald Trump is still, without any evidence whatsoever, claiming that there were millions of fraudulent votes cast in 2016. The latest version of this claim reportedly came in a closed-door meeting with congressional leaders on Monday. This followed a series of tweets that Trump sent out last year, in which he tried to explain that his loss in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton was actually caused by "the millions of people who voted illegally."

That Trump is now president should give no more credibility to his claim. The facts are clear: Voter fraud is extremely rare. There is no evidence at all that millions of people voted illegally. Experts are in wide agreement that the limited cases of voter fraud that do exist don’t swing national elections, because the few hundred or so cases that allegedly occur amount to a drop in the bucket in elections in which tens of millions of votes — and sometimes more than 100 million ballots — are cast.

The facts, however, haven’t stopped Republicans from complaining about voter fraud for years. The "rigged election" rhetoric that Trump has leveled throughout the entire election and afterward is in fact really a natural evolution of all the times Republicans and conservative media have suggested that there’s widespread voter fraud — typically in defense of very strict voter ID laws.

But the facts are very important here. There really is no reason that Americans should doubt the authenticity of the election and its results, no matter what their next president says.

Voter fraud is extremely rare. It doesn’t swing national elections or the national popular vote.

An “I voted” sticker. Scott Olson/Getty Images

When someone tries to cast a fraudulent ballot to boost his or her candidate, that’s voter fraud. It can take many forms, including voter impersonation, absentee fraud, double voting, insider ballot box stuffing, and voting by people who turn out to be ineligible.

Voter ID laws target voter impersonation: when someone tries to file a ballot while impersonating other people. Supporters of voter ID laws argue that requiring an ID for each vote makes this much harder, since voters will have to prove they really are the person they claim they are when voting.

But this type of voter fraud is nearly nonexistent. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt has tracked credible allegations of in-person voter impersonation for years. He found 35 total credible allegations between 2000 and 2014, constituting a few hundred ballots at most, when more than 800 million ballots were cast in national general elections and hundreds of millions more were cast in primary, municipal, special, and other elections.

Beyond voter impersonation, other kinds of voter fraud are more common but still extremely rare. Based on a previous investigation by News21, there are at most a few hundred allegations of voter fraud of all kinds every election — and nearly half of the allegations with a determined resolution were dropped with no charges upon further investigation. In a national election in which more than 130 million votes were cast, the cases amount to a fraction of a fraction of a percent of all votes cast — simply not enough fraud to affect the outcome of a presidential election.

As Chris Ashby, a Republican election lawyer, wrote for Vox, America has "a system of voting that is one of the cleanest and best in the world — in which all citizens should have faith and confidence."

That doesn’t mean voter fraud has never happened and never had an impact. The New York Times, for instance, reported on a 1997 case in which it was revealed that Miami Mayor Xavier Suárez clinched his electoral victory "with the help of hundreds of absentee ballots bearing the names of dead people, felons and other ineligible voters." While Suárez was never charged, he was eventually forced to step down from office after an appellate court threw out the absentee ballots.

But this type of situation, the empirical evidence and experts suggest, is likely far too rare to swing much bigger elections. When debating whether to do something about voter fraud, then, it’s important to consider whether the potential downsides — such as making it harder for people of color to vote or sowing doubt in US elections — are worth the upside of stopping a tiny number of fraudulent votes. Otherwise, you might get prominent politicians like Trump casting doubt on the entire electoral process.

Republicans have been complaining about voter fraud for years — and now we have Trump

Frederic Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Trump isn’t the first Republican, or even Republican presidential candidate, to raise concerns about voter fraud.

In 2008, many Republicans and conservative media outlets like Fox News promoted fears that ACORN — a community organization that focused in part on registering African-American voters — was engaging in mass-scale election fraud. At the time, Republican nominee John McCain warned that ACORN "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

Touting these kinds of concerns, 14 states passed new voting restrictions — from strict photo ID requirements to limits on early voting — that were in place for the 2016 election: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Other states passed restrictions, but they’re currently tied up in court battles.

Republican leaders have also embraced other tactics that limit people’s ability to vote, including purging voter rolls, going after voter registration groups, and closing down polling places.

These measures typically target voter impersonation. They require a certain kind of ID to vote — Texas, for example, allows government-issued IDs (including concealed-gun permits) but not student IDs. This, obviously, makes it much harder for someone to impersonate another voter.

But states’ voting restrictions can also take other steps that don’t seem to target fraud so much as make voting more difficult. North Carolina’s law, for example, also eliminated some early voting days, ended same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting, and stopped the preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds in the state. (Some critics linked the early voting cuts to long lines at the polls this year.)

Republicans, who tend to push for these laws at the state level, nonetheless insist that their goal is to limit voter fraud. And for years, they have echoed rhetoric like McCain’s and Trump’s to convince people that voter fraud really is a big problem that requires burdensome laws to fix.

A previous report by the US Department of Justice captured the sentiment among many Republicans: Rep. Sue Burmeister, a lead sponsor of Georgia’s voter restriction law, told the Justice Department that "if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud. [Burmeister] said that when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls." Other Republicans, such as North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and Iowa Rep. Steve King, have similarly warned about the dangers of voter fraud.

So as much as Trump is a political aberration in many respects, he really isn’t out of line with the typical Republican rhetoric on voter fraud. Still, that doesn’t diminish the very real consequences of his rhetoric.

Voter fraud fears can lead to racist consequences

Republican-backed voting restrictions don’t affect everyone equally. Time and time again, the evidence has shown that they tend to keep eligible minority voters in particular from casting a ballot — and Republicans have at times admitted that this was their intent.

Some studies suggest voter ID laws make it particularly harder for black and brown Americans to vote. One widely cited 2006 study by the Brennan Center found voter ID laws, for instance, disproportionately impacted eligible black voters: 25 percent of black voting-age citizens did not have a government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of white voting-age citizens. And a study for the Black Youth Project, which analyzed 2012 voting data for people ages 18 to 29, found 72.9 percent of young black voters and 60.8 percent of young Hispanic voters were asked for IDs to vote, compared with 50.8 percent of young white voters.

One reason for these kinds of numbers is disparate enforcement — polling officials, perhaps driven by racial biases, appear more likely to ask minority voters for an ID.

But minority voters are also generally hit harder by voter ID laws and other restrictions on voting. For example, since minority Americans are less likely to have flexible work hours or own cars, they might have a harder time affording a voter ID or getting to the right place (typically a DMV or BMV office) to obtain a voter ID, rely more on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot, or require a nearby voting place instead of one that’s a drive, instead of a walk, away from home or work.

Conveniently for Republicans, minority voters tend to lean Democratic. So Republicans are effectively making it harder for the other party’s voters to vote.

For civil rights groups, the restrictions call back to the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other rules that were imposed to block minorities from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively banned such laws. Like modern voting restrictions, the old laws didn’t appear to racially discriminate at face value — but due to selective enforcement and socioeconomic disparities, they disproportionately kept out black voters.

Some Republicans have even admitted that this is the goal of the new wave of voting restrictions. As William Wan reported for the Washington Post:

Longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said the GOP’s voter fraud argument is nothing more than an excuse.

"Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?" he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. While GOP lawmakers might have passed the law to suppress some voters, Wrenn said, that does not mean it was racist.

"Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was," Wrenn said. "It wasn’t about discriminating against African Americans. They just ended up in the middle of it because they vote Democrat."

The US Department of Justice is supposed to act as a check on these kinds of voter suppression efforts. But under Republican administrations, the agency has approached voting rights cases with a lack of serious interest — with the Bush administration in particular known for effectively treating civil rights enforcement as a joke.

With Trump’s nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — who has opposed parts of the Voting Rights Act throughout his career — to serve as attorney general, the Trump administration looks poised to take a careless approach. In fact, it might even set aside resources toward supporting states’ voter suppression efforts by dedicating time and money to investigating and cracking down on voter fraud.

Now, the research shows that voter ID laws and other voting restrictions have a fairly small overall impact on elections, at most reducing turnout by a percentage point or two.

But even if voting restrictions don’t have a big effect on the ultimate outcome of elections, they still appear to disproportionately keep minority voters from exercising their most basic democratic right — a problem no matter how you slice it. And it’s a problem that’s perpetuated through a total myth: a false claim that there’s a lot of voter fraud in America when the evidence simply shows otherwise.

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