Voter Fraud Virtually Non-Existent, Study Finds

Despite a five-year crackdown on voter fraud, there is little evidence that it is a real problem, the NYT reports in a front-page story by Eric Lipton and Ian Urbina.

Although Republican activists have repeatedly said fraud is so widespread that it has corrupted the political process and, possibly, cost the party election victories, about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted as of last year. Most of those charged have been Democrats, voting records show. Many of those charged by the Justice Department appear to have mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers show.

In Miami, an assistant United States attorney said many cases there involved what were apparently mistakes by immigrants, not fraud.

In Wisconsin, where prosecutors have lost almost twice as many cases as they won, charges were brought against voters who filled out more than one registration form and felons seemingly unaware that they were barred from voting. One ex-convict was so unfamiliar with the rules that he provided his prison-issued identification card, stamped “Offender,” when he registered just before voting.

A handful of convictions involved people who voted twice. More than 30 were linked to small vote-buying schemes in which candidates generally in sheriff’s or judge’s races paid voters for their support.


Mistakes and lapses in enforcing voting and registration rules routinely occur in elections, allowing thousands of ineligible voters to go to the polls. But the federal cases provide little evidence of widespread, organized fraud, prosecutors and election law experts said.

They provide a nice graphic to illustrate their findings:

Voter Fraud Cases Graphic

The result, frankly, isn’t that surprising. Had there been major conspiracies to swing federal elections, we’d almost surely know about at least one of them by now.

My concern has always been about the “thousands of ineligible voters” who are able to sway close elections, incentives on the part of election officials to cheat, and the like. It seems to me that requiring voters to produce a driver’s license or other state-issued identification to prove that they are who they say they are is warranted just to help prevent that, regardless of any criminal intent. On that score, I differ from most of the bloggers on the other side of the proverbial aisle, like Kevin Drum.

That said, I agree with the blogswarm, almost exclusively on the leftist and anti-Bush blogs, that the heavyhanded use of the Justice Department to use or threaten criminal action against a minor category of crimes is troubling. Hilzoy probably sums it up best when she observes, “There are murderers and embezzlers and people defrauding widows and orphans out there. We should try catching them, rather than wasting our time on this sort of travesty.”

I’d stop short of Andrew Sullivan‘s charge that this is “better understood as a form of voter purging and intimidation of Democratic voters by partisan Republican U.S. Attorneys, selected principally not to uphold justice in any neutral form, but to deepen and strengthen one party’s grip on power.” After all, in the aftermath of the 2000 election debacle, there was widespread and bipartisan angst about stolen elections, the vagaries of local election practices, and the like. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that there was a problem that needed to be solved. The question is how much evidence you need before you realize you’re off on a wild goose chase and should redirect resources elsewhere.

It seems rather clear that that time is past. Rick Hasen quite reasonably observes that the burden of proof should now shift to “those who still believe a great deal of voter fraud is taking place at the polls” to justify continuing this effort.

UPDATE: Commenter YetAnotherJohn notes that the lack of criminal indictments—which legitimately requires a high bar—is not proof that no fraudulent activity is taking place. That’s certainly true. Still, the lack of actionable evidence of crime should at least be enough to redirect the efforts of government prosecutors, who are, after all, in the business of responding to crime.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This is also using only one measurement to define the scope of the problem. If you look at the 2004 Washington state governor election, you can see lots of questionable activity, but to the best of my knowledge, no convictions. Does that mean there was no voter fraud involved? Or does it say that only looking at convictions is the measurement of voter fraud.

    Another way of putting it is to look at the number of convictions for spying and assuming that that was all the cases of spying. Since the number of convictions for spying is incredibly low, why do we spend any resources in defending against foreign spies?

  2. just me says:

    I actually agree with YAJ-this doesn’t really mean you can say that there is no voter fraud.

    To take another criminal comparison-that of crime statistics.

    Conviction rates are lower than indictment rates, which are lower than arrests, which are lower than that found on victim report studies.

    I can’t remember the exact figures, but I know for instance that convictions for rape, assault and especially property type crimes are found at much lower rates than those found on the victim reports.

    I figure voter fraud is one of those things that is probably fairly easy to accomplish without much chance of getting caught, and difficult to actually investigate and prosecute.

    Also, I doubt voter fraud has much influence when it comes to the bigger elections with far more voters involved, but can reek havoc with local and state elections.

  3. jeff b says:

    cmon yetanotherjohn, don’t perpetuate the stupid Washington 2004 story by reference. Post a link to ONE, SINGLE instance of evidence demonstrating voter fraud.

  4. spencer says:

    My concern has always been about the “thousands of ineligible voters” who are able to sway close elections,

    do you have any actual evidence that this ever occurs?

    do you even have any evidence that thousands of ineligible voters ever vote?

  5. James Joyner says:

    do you have any actual evidence that this ever occurs?

    The same study that everybody is citing saying there isn’t much criminal problem.

  6. William d'Inger says:

    Come on, folks, this is the NYT. Voter fraud is what they call it only when the Democrat loses. If illegals, felons or the dead vote their way, they won’t waste ink on the subject.

  7. jeffb,

    Well as far as ‘one’ voter fraud in the 2004 election, we have the state attorney general report of February of 2007. So 2.3 years later, a case gets forwarded to the prosecutor.

    In King County two cases were investigated. One case was determined to be two separate voters; the other has been forwarded to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

    But to put that report in perspective, you have the dead voting and foreigners voted illegally.

    So using this as an example, one case is being forwarded to the prosecutor, but other cases have been documented that appear to have some substance to them. Are these cases ‘voter fraud’ in terms of a Daley’s old democratic machine? No. But they do represent votes being cast and counted that should not have been.

    The bottom line is that 2.5 years after the election, more questionable votes are still out there than the margin of victory for the election.

  8. hln says:

    We frequently wonder if our cats and/or baby have cast their Democratic ballots. We are just a few miles from the City of St. Louis’ borders.