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There’s election fraud in North Carolina. That’s not the same thing as voter fraud.

Conservatives claim the North Carolina ballot tampering scandal proves voter fraud is real. Not quite.

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Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

There is an absolutely wild ballot tampering scandal unfolding in North Carolina, implicating an operative who worked on behalf of the Republican candidate. A GOP win in a competitive House race could be overturned and a new election called.

Puzzlingly, some conservatives have chosen this moment, of all moments, to spike the football and declare they were right: Voter fraud is a serious problem.

“The North Carolina race demonstrates how even relatively small-scale cheating ... can undermine faith in our system. And how, if anyone doubted it, voter fraud is real,” read one column in the conservative National Review.

There are a few problems with that take, starting with the most important: What happened in North Carolina wasn’t really voter fraud. It was election fraud — and, yes, that is a meaningful distinction.

Yet the reason for the contortion is clear: Republicans are invested in the voter fraud narrative. They spent much of November warning that Democrats were trying to steal elections in Arizona and Florida, despite no evidence to support their outlandish claims. It goes back further than that, of course: President Donald Trump has made the patently ridiculous claim that he actually won the popular vote if you discount a couple million “illegal” votes in California. The specter of voter fraud has been used to justify voting restrictions in GOP-led states across the country over the past decade.

But the evidence for such fraud has always been lacking. So, strange as it might seem for conservatives to seize an example of fraud perpetrated on behalf of a Republican for validation, that explains why some conservatives have taken the line that the real lesson of the North Carolina scandal is that voter fraud is, in fact, real.

But the facts betray them. Republicans typically warn of the dangers of voter fraud, i.e., somebody showing up at the polling place, misrepresenting themselves, and voting despite not being who they say they are. North Carolina officials are investigating election fraud, an entire coordinated operation to tamper with and possibly destroy ballots.

That might sound like a narrow semantic debate, but the difference is fundamental. In the first case, the voter commits the fraud. But in the second, it’s the voters who get defrauded.

Election fraud is not the same thing as voter fraud

“Voter fraud” as conventionally meant by Republicans looks something like this: Somebody shows up at the polling place and presents false identification and then votes, thereby casting a vote that should never have been cast. The voter commits fraud.

Take this memorable illustration from President Trump, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar detailed last month. This is a slightly hyperbolic iteration of what Republicans usually have in mind:

In an interview with the Daily Caller conducted on Wednesday, Trump claimed people commit voter fraud by casting a ballot, returning to their cars to change clothes, and then going back to polling places in disguise to cast additional ballots.

“The Republicans don’t win and that’s because of potentially illegal votes,” Trump said. “When people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again. Nobody takes anything. It’s really a disgrace what’s going on.”

That is not at all what allegedly happened in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, where election officials have refused to certify Republican Mark Harris’s win over Democrat Dan McCready.

The precise contours of the scheme are still coming into focus. But in brief, a local political operative paid by the Republican campaign appears to have orchestrated an operation to collect absentee ballots from voters, against state law. The absentee ballots may have been destroyed or otherwise tampered with; we don’t know for sure yet. But we do know that an unusually high number of absentee ballots were requested but not ultimately returned, and voters have testified that people working for the operative took their ballots and said they’d finish filling out their votes for them.

In other words, this was a coordinated effort that may have led to people’s ballots not being returned and properly counted. It is a fraud perpetrated upon the voters, which casts doubt on the basic fairness of the election.

Some conservatives — Kansas secretary of state and former White House voter fraud czar Kris Kobach, National Review’s Rich Lowry — have cited the North Carolina scandal as evidence that voter fraud does happen. But they conflate two meaningfully different things.

The shenanigans in North Carolina “did not involve ‘voter’ fraud at all,” Rick Hasen, an election law professor at UC Irvine, wrote for Slate, “but instead an election crime which took votes away from actual voters.”

Hasen’s assessment was shared by other prominent election watchers on Twitter.

Republicans have spent years stoking fears about voter fraud

Yet conservatives still choose to cite, of all things, these allegations of ballot tampering undertaken by a Republican-funded operative as validation for their crusade against voter fraud. They usually come up empty when searching for examples of voter fraud; here, at the least, some kind of fraud was going on. No matter that it wasn’t the kind they usually mean.

Voter fraud as commonly understood — people illegally casting voters — is borderline nonexistent. As Vox’s German Lopez reported last year:

There have been multiple investigations — by academics, journalists, and nonpartisan think tanks — into voter fraud. None have found evidence of anything close to millions of people voting illegally, as Trump has alleged.

Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt studied voter impersonation, the type of fraud that strict voter ID laws (which Trump supports) aim to curtail. Levitt found 35 total credible accusations between 2000 and 2014, constituting a few hundred ballots at most. During this 15-year period, 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.

Republicans are nonetheless quick to cry fraud in close elections. There was no caveating, couching, or restraint on the part of Rick Scott and Donald Trump when the Florida Senate election headed to a recount. The president outright called it electoral theft. Scott echoed the president’s comments. So did Sen. Marco Rubio.

There were, however, no allegations from Scott’s own appointed election watchers or other state officials of any kind of voter fraud or election rigging. A Florida judge reaffirmed that no evidence of wrongdoing was ever presented. Similar claims of possible fraud in Arizona, pushed by Trump and some state politicians, were summarily dismissed by the Republican governor and secretary of state.

But the false specter of voter fraud has been used for much more sinister purposes than overblown rhetoric amid a contested election. Republicans invoked fraud as they sought to and succeeded in approving voter ID laws and voter purges across the country. Those laws have been shown to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.

“Voter ID laws prevent only voter impersonation fraud and would do nothing to stop what went on in [North Carolina],” Hasen wrote at Slate. “But the facts ... will be elided into a general sense that elections can be ‘stolen’ and that ‘voter fraud’ remains a major problem.”

Some states where Republicans just lost power to Democrats are rushing to pass laws that would, among other things, limit voting rights — the next phase of the faux war to end voter fraud.

This is the neat trick of how Republicans have handled the North Carolina scandal: They don’t actually have the facts to justify their anti-voting crusade, so they’ll take evidence, any evidence at all, even of some other kind of fraud, to keep the charade going.

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