Election integrity and voter fraud have become so controversial that even if you try to discuss them rationally and reasonably, and cite incontrovertible evidence, you will likely be banned by social media platforms and labelled a conspiratorial vote suppressor by the major media organizations that dominate our airwaves.
But ensuring fair and honest elections is fundamental to maintaining a democratic republic and wanting to ensure integrity and security does not make you a vote suppressor. These days, that is simply an inflammatory term used to oppose any and all election reforms that progressives (and certain political consultants) don’t like.
Those same opponents of reforms are constantly claiming that fraud doesn’t happen or is so rare that we don’t need to worry about it. Of course, that brings up the question of how much fraud they think is acceptable, a question to which they never seem to have any answer.
Does election fraud occur? Are there actually individuals willing to cheat in order to win elections or cast a fraudulent vote? Does fraud ever affect election outcomes?
Those who would answer “no” to those questions don’t know much about our political history, which has been filled with incidents of fraud in our elections. As the U.S. Supreme Court reflected in 2008 in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board when it upheld Indiana’s new voter ID law as constitutional and not a burden on voters:
It remains true…that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years…that…demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.
We have close elections all the time in this country, particularly in local elections, and that is where the fraud that sometimes occurs can really make a difference. Like the 2021 city council election in Compton, CA, that was overturned by a judge after she determined that four votes had been cast by voters who didn’t actually live in Compton. The margin of victory was only one vote in that election, and five defendants were convicted of fraud – including the city councilman who won the race by one vote.
Or how about the 2018 Ninth Congressional District race in North Carolina that was overturned by the state board of elections after its investigation found absentee ballot fraud orchestrated by a political consultant and his henchmen? The fraud there was so “pervasive” that it affected the outcome of the election, which had a margin of only 905 votes.
I have been falsely accused of saying that we have massive election fraud, something I have never said or claimed. We don’t know how much election fraud occurs because of all the vulnerabilities in our system, and anybody who tells you otherwise is simply not telling the truth. But we do know that fraud occurs often enough that we should be concerned about it and take the steps necessary to deter it and make it hard to commit. Voters want both access and security. And contrary to the claims of critics, you can provide both. Making sure that every eligible citizen is able to vote does not prevent you from implementing measures intended to safeguard that vote.
If you doubt that fraud occurs often enough to warrant taking any steps to combat it, check out the Election Fraud Database maintained by the Heritage Foundation, the only one of its kind. This database presents a sampling of recent proven instances of election fraud from across the country. Every case represents an instance in which a public official, usually a prosecutor, thought it serious enough to act upon it. It includes cases where there were criminal convictions, civil penalties, and judicial or other official findings of fraud. Keep in mind that it is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be. It is constantly growing as more cases are added to the almost 1,400 cases that already exist in the database.
Unfortunately, as the database demonstrates, fraud occurs in our elections in a wide variety of ways. That includes the fraudulent use of absentee ballots; voting by ineligible individuals such as aliens and felons; impersonation of registered voters; buying votes; duplicate voting by individuals registered twice, sometimes in the same state and other times in multiple states; false registrations like in the Compton case; and illegal “assistance” of voters where political activists and guns-for-hire are coercing and intimidating voters to cast ballots for particular candidates, not actually assisting them. And even old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing.
Doubt that ballot-box stuffing or vote-buying, which have a long, infamous history in American elections, still occur? Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, now a political consultant, recently pleaded guilty to bribing local election officials in Philadelphia, his hometown, to stuff ballot boxes in their polling places with fraudulent votes in multiple elections for multiple candidates. Two of those election officials, Domenick Demuro and Marie Benson, who managed several polling places in the City of Brotherly Love, previously pleaded guilty to accepting those bribes and engaging in election fraud. And the chief of police and a member of the city council of Amite, LA, also recently pleaded guilty to organizing and carrying out a conspiracy to pay cash to voters to get themselves and other favored candidates elected.
Of course, not every instance of election fraud is a scheme like these by a group of conspirators to steal an election. In many cases, individuals simply take advantage of the insecure system we have in too many states. Take Melissa Fisher of Quakertown, PA, and Elizabeth Gale of San Diego, CA, who forged the signatures of their deceased mothers on absentee ballots and submitted them to election officials. They got caught, but plenty of others aren’t, due to inadequate safeguards in the election process, as well as neglect and incompetence by election officials.
How Big is the Problem?
The cases in the Heritage database are just the tip of the iceberg. You can’t detect fraud if you aren’t looking for it, and if you don’t have measures in place like an ID requirement, how are you even going to detect it? Also, too many local prosecutors don’t seem to have any interest in actually investigating and prosecuting these crimes when they are discovered.
That latter problem is illustrated by a report released in November 2021 by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (on whose board I serve). The foundation used Florida’s sunshine law to request information from 10 counties on all election officials’ criminal referrals arising out of the 2020 election. Nine counties responded, saying they had sent 156 referrals to local prosecutors about criminal violations of state election law, including instances of double voting and aliens registering and voting. The foundation then checked Florida’s criminal databases and court records and found that none of the cases had been prosecuted. Heritage’s entire database would be about 10 percent larger if just these cases in nine counties had actually been pursued.
Want another clue as to how much bigger this problem is than what is shown in the Heritage database? In 2020, the Public Interest Legal Foundation released a report called “Critical Condition.” The foundation obtained the statewide voter registration list and voter histories from the 2016 and 2018 elections from 42 states, then very carefully set up a complex matching program to compare the states and check the data against other government and commercial databases.
The report documented over 144,000 cases of potential fraud. This included almost 15,000 voters who were recorded by state election officials as having cast ballots after they were dead. They found tens of thousands of individuals who voted twice. They also found 34,000 individuals who voted in either the 2016 or 2018 election whose registered address where they supposedly lived turned out to be gas stations, vacant lots, restaurants, parks, and numerous other obviously fraudulent addresses. Not a single election official or prosecutor in any of the 42 states contacted the foundation to ask that the relevant files on voters in their states be sent to them for investigation. Not a single one.
Is there a Fix?
So, the question becomes – what do we do about this? There are a whole series of steps state legislators and election officials can take to improve security while at the same time maintaining the ability of eligible citizens to easily register and vote. In fact, in February 2021, after the 2020 presidential election, the Heritage Foundation published a list of best practices recommendations for improving the security of the election process.
It includes commonsense recommendations such as requiring an ID to vote–both in-person and absentee–something that many states have already implemented, with a free ID provided to anyone who does not already have one. Contrary to the false claims of opponents, turnout from states that have implemented ID laws, such as Georgia and Indiana, shows that such a requirement does not “suppress” votes.
A 2019 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that reviewed 10 years of turnout data from across the country concluded that voter ID laws “have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.” In fact, that point of view–that African Americans and other minorities cannot deal with voter ID or other requirements such as voter registration–is evidence of a patronizingly racist view towards minority voters. Polling shows that the public overwhelmingly supports voter ID (84 percent, to be specific), and that includes a majority of all voters regardless of race, ethnicity, or political affiliation.
But states can also do a much better job of maintaining the accuracy of their voter registration lists by accessing other available information, such as state driver’s license, federal alien, and commercial databases. They need to ban ballot trafficking and not allow third parties, such as political activists, candidates, and party representatives who have a stake in the outcome of the election, from collecting absentee ballots from voters.
The Heritage Foundation has established an Election Integrity Scorecard that grades every state on these standards and provides an easy guide to the public and legislators for improving both access and security in their elections. Of course, the Scorecard just rates the quality of election laws in each state. A law that is not rigorously enforced is not worth the paper it’s written on. It is up to the public to hold their election officials accountable for how those laws are enforced.
Keeping it Non-Partisan
What is most unfortunate is that the issue of election integrity has become so partisan. The claim by the progressive left than any attempts to improve integrity are voter suppression is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2005, the bipartisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Democratic President Jimmy Carter and former Republican Secretary of State James Baker, issued a report making a long series of recommendations on how to improve the integrity of the election process. Their recommendations included everything from voter ID to better maintenance of voter registration lists –recommendations that today are anathema to reform opponents who label them as voter suppression.
The bottom line is that we can fix the problems that currently exist to protect voters and ensure the honesty of our elections, and we shouldn’t let unfair, unwise, and unjustified opposition prevent us from doing so.
Carter and Baker succinctly summarized the importance of guaranteeing the integrity of our election process in their 2005 report:
Elections are the heart of democracy. They are the instrument for the people to choose leaders and hold them accountable. At the same time, elections are a core public function upon which all other government responsibilities depend. If elections are defective, the entire democratic system is at risk.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and Manager of its Election Law Reform Initiative. He is a former Justice Department lawyer and FEC commissioner. He is the coauthor of Our Broken Elections: How the Left Changed the Way You Vote.