We are three days from the most interesting presidential election the US has ever seen and the phrase “voter fraud” is a political favorite. I suspect in three days the phrase is going to become even more popular. But what the hell is “voter fraud” and how dangerous is it?
“Voter Fraud” is an ambiguous term that lumps together several different things related to the election process. It includes voter intimidation, illegal voting, and vote rigging. Great that doesn’t really explain anything. When politicians complain about “voter fraud” they are specifically talking about illegal voting and recently have added vote rigging also known as ballot rigging. So, we’ll tackle illegal voting and vote rigging first.
Illegal voting is exactly as it sounds; a person voting illegally. This happens in a couple of ways. It can happen when someone casts more than one ballot or it can happen when someone who is not a registered voter casts a ballot. Voting in the US requires you to be an American citizen over the age of 18. We also limit people who have been convicted of a felony (you cannot vote while incarcerated and there is usually a waiting time after your release before you can register to vote). Therefore an illegal vote is cast by someone not legally allowed to vote; so people under 18 or someone incarcerated or someone who has not yet been given the ability to re-register to vote after serving prison time for a felony (the length of time between finishing a prison sentence and being allowed to register to vote varies greatly from state to state and I’m not going to do a break down of it). Or someone who is not a legal registered voter for whatever reason, is an “illegal vote.” For example, despite my husband being 41 years old he has never registered to vote simply because he doesn’t he want to deal with registering and then taking the time to vote. If he voted even though he is not a felon, he’s over 18, and he’s an American Citizen, it would be an “illegal vote.”
Vote rigging is known by several names including ballot rigging and ballot tampering. This requires a person to dispose of completed ballots of legal voters. This has been in the news lately because a volunteer at an election office threw away 9 absentee ballots. This is a serious problem and much has been made of it lately, but it’s important to understand not every one of those 9 ballots were legal. At least 3 did not specify the person who cast the vote, which does render a ballot illegal because it must match voter registration information (see the above about illegal ballots). This happened in an election office, but it could be an event that happens at a polling place or county counting office or a legal collection center.
Neither illegal votes nor vote rigging happens in prolific numbers for obvious reasons, it is incredibly hard to do. First off, it’s really hard to vote twice because of voter registration practices. Second, people would notice if thousands of ballots disappeared into thin air every election (they noticed 9). Finally, most Americans do not care enough about voting to steal the identity of thousands of other people for the purpose of voting. People steal identities to get credit cards and buy expensive shit, they don’t commit identity theft to vote multiple times. Especially given that voting twice or even three times doesn’t affect the outcome of a major election much. As of today, more than 70 million early votes have been cast in the US presidential election, a single person couldn’t steal enough identities to vote so many times they impacted the election. With that many votes already cast, a large group of thousands would need to cast thousands of votes each in dozens of different states creating millions of fraudulent ballots for illegal voting to impact a major US election… and that would also be noticed.
Now, we’ll tackle the most common form of voter fraud which isn’t really “individual voter fraud” like the other two mentioned: Voter Intimidation. Voter intimidation is using threats to force voters to vote for a specific candidate. This is also in the news right now because letters were sent to thousands of registered Democrats threatening them to vote for President Trump or else. National Security services (NSA, CIA, DIA, FBI, etc) have linked the threats to Iran and not the Proud Boys as the emails proclaim. However, voter intimidation can be very simple… if someone sent you an email saying “Vote for Candidate X or we’ll kick your ass” that is voter intimidation. More complicated forms include activists standing outside the polls and threatening bodily violence if a voter doesn’t vote for that person’s preferred candidate. This is by far the most common form of voter fraud and the FBI investigates thousands of cases every year and it increases when there’s a presidential election, it is probably the least effective form of voter fraud. Research shows that few voters respond to voter intimidation in the suggested way and can actually convince people to do exactly the opposite because while in person intimidation works best, it’s impossible to know who a person votes for once they get their ballots and fill them in because voters aren’t allowed to stand behind other voter’s and watch over their shoulders as they fill in the ballot. Related to this, when the President promised to have National Guard at polling places to “Keep the peace” this year, most state governments balked at the idea because that qualifies as voter intimidation. While it is possible there will be protestors and activists outside polling locations, they have designated areas where they must stand and they are not allowed to threaten voters.
It is not “voter fraud” to vote by mail. Voting by mail has been a thing since the very beginning of the United States of America. The very first US election allowed soldiers to vote by mail. During the Civil War the federal government and several states passed laws and set up election centers dedicated to mail-in voting and while the first mail-in ballots were only by soldiers, it was expanded and increased during the Civil War to the general population. The vote by mail systems in nearly every state were again expanded and increased during the 1918 election which was not a Presidential election. The only thing politicians seem to get correct about “voter fraud” is that it is easier to commit with mail-in voting, but here’s the thing “easier” it is not “easy” to do and it comes with a lengthy federal prison sentence. The easiest way to commit voter fraud via mail in voting is to pretend to be a dead person, which raises some problems since most states require the signatures on a mail-in ballot to be exact to the one on the voter registration card and because who wants to serve 5 years or so in federal prison just so they can vote twice.
Essentially, the biggest “voter fraud” that will be committed in 2020 has probably already happened: another nation sent voter intimidation emails to registered Democrats threatening them if they didn’t vote for President Trump. There will not be millions of illegal votes cast and there aren’t hundreds of volunteers trolling polling places and elections offices hoping for the opportunity to make thousands of filled out ballots disappear. If politicians want to rant and rave about “voter fraud” they should rant and rave about voter intimidation, but the most vocal have yet to condemn Iran or Russia for hacking voter registration databases which is what should be happening since they are so “concerned about voter fraud.”