Let's say it again: Voter fraud is not the problem

Written by Dana Patterson, Common Cause intern on October 4, 2016


The November election will be the first in 50 years conducted without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, a development that heightens the importance of volunteer efforts to see that every voter has convenient, unobstructed access to the ballot.

But with Election Day just five weeks away, some political leaders are stoking unfounded fears about voter fraud and recruiting volunteers bent on suppressing rather than boosting turnout.

Unfortunately, their rhetoric appears to be sticking with many Americans. In a recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 35 percent of American adults said they believe there is “a great deal of election fraud in the United States, 39 percent say there is some election fraud, and only 24 percent say there is hardly any.” About half of all Republicans, 58 percent of Donald Trump supporters, and 18 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters believe there is a great deal of election fraud.

They are mistaken. Research by Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles who specializes in democracy and election law, has found that since 2000, only 31 verified cases of voter impersonation fraud have been documented out of more than 1 billion ballots cast in the U.S.

Ignoring those numbers, organizations such as True the Vote are fomenting voter vigilantism, recruiting volunteers to stalk the polls and report “suspicious” behavior. Those groups, which in the past have targeted communities of color, seem more intent on suppressing the vote than on protecting voters however. 

Presidential candidate Donald Trump is also fanning popular fears about voter fraud, telling supporters he can lose the election only if “cheating goes on” and urging them to monitor voting “in certain areas.”

Many voting-rights advocates hear calls for voter intimidation in Trump’s rhetoric. On Saturday, the candidate urged a largely white crowd of supporters in Manheim, PA to “go out, and […] get everybody you know, and you got to watch the polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas.” He continued, “We don’t want to lose—but especially, we don’t want to lose for that reason. So go over and watch.”

Other groups, including Common Cause and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are focused on assisting voters and fending off efforts to discourage voting. We're offering poll volunteers in-person and online training sessions on federal and state laws on voter registration and identification. Trainees learn how to deal with equipment issues, provide disability and language assistance, and more.

Sign up to be an Election Protection volunteer.

Those groups also are urging voters who see illegal or intimidating practices on Election Day, to report their observation to the Election Protection hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE. For Spanish, call 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA and 1-888-API-VOTE for Asian languages. More information on Election Protection and how to join its team of volunteers is available here.

Meanwhile many state legislatures have passed strict voter ID laws that are designed to prevent the kind of fraud that Levitt has demonstrated is already almost nonexistent.

Laws aimed to prevent impersonation fraud not only are unnecessary, they prevent many eligible voters from voting. In just four states, during the same time period of Levitt’s research, 3,000 people were turned away at polling places due to strict voter ID laws.

Until 2013, when the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act stood as a bulwark against state attempts to limit the franchise. But because the court eviscerated Section V of the VRA, states no longer need federal “preclearance” to implement legislation related to voting laws or practices.

Since Shelby, nearly half of the states have passed laws that disproportionately affect low-income voters, voters of color, students, seniors, and the disabled. These restrictive laws have been pushed aggressively by Republican lawmakers and there’s considerable evidence they’re motivated by partisanship.

“It’s something we’re working on all over the country, because in the states where they do have voter ID laws you’ve seen, actually, elections begin to change towards more conservative candidates,” former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican who’s now serving as president of the Heritage Foundation, has said.

In one of the most restrictive examples, North Carolina eliminated Election Day or same-day registration, prohibited preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, restricted early voting, and required stringent forms of photo identification. Much of the North Carolina law was set aside last month by a federal appeals court.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Protect The Vote

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