(Editors Note: This report is part of a project on voting rights produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It has been edited for length and includes additional reporting on Orange County by Voice of OC. Click here to read the original version of this article and the complete project, titled “Voting Wars — Rights/Power/Privilege.”)
Politicians and voting rights advocates continue to clash over whether photo ID and other voting requirements are needed to prevent voter fraud, but a News21 analysis and recent court rulings show little evidence that such fraud is widespread.
A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls.
This year, News21 reviewed cases in Arizona, Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Kansas, where politicians have expressed concern about voter fraud, and found hundreds of allegations but few prosecutions between 2012 and 2016. Attorneys general in those states successfully prosecuted 38 cases, though other cases may have been litigated at the county level. At least one-third of those cases involved nonvoters, such as elections officials or volunteers. None of the cases prosecuted was for voter impersonation.
“Voter fraud is not a significant problem in the country,” Jennifer Clark of the Brennan Center told News21. “As the evidence that has come out in some recent court cases and reports and basically every analysis that has ever been done has concluded: It is not a significant concern.”
Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden who wrote a book on the phenomenon in 2010 called “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said in an interview that she hasn’t seen an uptick in the crime since. “Voter fraud remains rare because it is irrational behavior,” she said. “You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there and we have rules to prevent against it.”
Christopher Coates, former chief of the voting section in the Department of Justice, disagrees. “The claim by the liberal left that there is no voter fraud that is going on is completely false,” he told News21. “Anytime that there are people voting that are not legally entitled to vote that’s a big issue. It carries with it the potential for deciding elections a way that is contrary to the voting majority of people.”
Coates, who now works as the general counsel for the American Civil Rights Union, pointed to a list of voter fraud allegations kept by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The list, based largely on news clippings and news releases, counted more than 100 allegations of voter fraud in the U.S. since 2012, only two of which were allegations of voter impersonation that could have been prevented by voter ID. The Republican National Lawyers Association also has a list of more than 200 allegations of election fraud of all kinds reported by news outlets since 2012.
Orange County, with roughly 1.4 million registered voters, is continually updating its lists, removing those who have died, said Neal Kelley, the county’s Registrar of Voters. In addition, Orange County is the only one in the state to use not only state information on deaths, but data from outside the state to try to keep track of voters who die while traveling in other states.
Even so, he said a handful of names will be missed, in part because staff are trained to err on the side of caution. With so many voters, there can be people with similar names and the same birth date or other reasons why a dead person remains on the rolls.
A History of Voter Suppression in OC
Historically, In Orange County, a bigger problem in Orange County has been attempts by Republican leaders and candidates to keep large groups of minorities away from the polls on Election Day. Twice, federal officials have sent election observers into the county following attempts to suppress Latino voting.
In one case, Tan Nguyen, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in 2006, was sentenced to a year in federal prison for lying to investigators about a letter sent to 14,000 Latino voters that warned ”…if you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time.”
In the 1980s, the Orange County Republican Party and other local GOP leaders, including former Anaheim mayor and one-time speaker of the state Assembly, Curt Pringle, paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused them of hiring uniformed guards to man polling places in 1988 and intimidate Hispanic voters.
In some instances, the guards sat at tables with poll workers in the Garden Grove district where Pringle was seeking re-election and at least one guard was seen handling ballots. Pringle won by just 843 votes.
Then-Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes later acknowledged he authorized the $4,000 payment for the guards from party funds.
Eight years later, Mark Denny, an aide to then-Assembly Speaker Pringle, pleaded guilty to election fraud for trying to blunt Democratic votes in an Orange County Assembly election.
Following his work for Pringle, Denny became chief of staff for former Republican Supervisor Bill Campbell and later took a job in the county bureaucracy. In 2013, Denny was named the county’s Chief Operating Officer with oversight responsibilities for the Registrar of Voters.
After protests by Nick Berardino, then-general manager for the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), the election oversight responsibilities were removed from Denny and Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley was assigned to directly report to county Chief Executive Officer Frank Kim. But Denny retains oversight of the Registrar of Voters’ budget.
Despite the county’s checkered past, there have not been any documented instances of voter suppression in the past decade. And, Kelley says, there have never been more safeguards to protect the integrity of votes cast at the polls.
How Mail-in Ballots Are Protected
Kelley and others also insist that the growing trend toward voting by mail does not mean less secure ballots.
Voters sign their name to the outside envelope and “every single one” of those signatures is reviewed by election workers to make sure they match the signature on file for the registered voter, he said.
In June, 59 percent of the 691,802 voters who cast ballots in Orange County, did it by mail, according to the Secretary of State’s office. That meant Kelley’s office screened the signatures of 408,183 voters. And observers from both political parties as well as nonprofit groups and just interested members of the public are on hand to watch the process.
Orange and San Mateo also are the only counties that have a full paper trail for all counted ballots, making it virtually impossible for someone to try to fix an election by simply changing election totals rather than individual votes.
“There’s just a huge amount of protections in place,” said Kelley.
Statewide 59 percent of the 8.5 million ballots cast came via mail according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Oregon has used only mail-in ballots since 1999 and has strenuous anti-fraud protections, Brenda Bayes, interim elections director, said in a telephone interview.
In addition, Oregon has a motor-voter law, so when a voter changes addresses with the state department of motor vehicles it DMV, it ensures ballots will be sent to the current address.
Asked if it was possible for an outsider to hack into the system and change overall vote totals, not individual ballots, Bayes said “no.”
The Oregon vote counting equipment isn’t connected to the internet.
National Republican Party Urges Photo IDs
The scant evidence of election fraud notwithstanding, the national GOP has made stricter voter ID laws one of its core issues.
The 2016 Republican platform, adopted in July, urges states to require proof of citizenship and photo ID out of concern that “voting procedures may be open to abuse.” At the same time, this summer, several federal courts struck down or revised a number of the state laws requiring specific forms of photo ID at the polls.
In July, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson struck down parts of Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law, concluding that there is “utterly no evidence” that in-person voter impersonation fraud is an issue in Wisconsin, or in the rest of the United States.
“The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” Peterson wrote in his ruling. “To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”
Reid Magney, spokesperson for Wisconsin elections, told News21 that the state did not track voter fraud until recently. The responsibility to prosecute those crimes lies with district attorneys across the state. “The numbers of prosecutions are so low that it hasn’t been a priority for us to track those things,” Magney said. “If somebody was charged with fraud it would make (the) newspapers.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told News21 that the number of fraud cases is beside the point. “All it takes is one person whose vote is canceled by someone not voting legally and that’s a problem,” he said. “I always tell folks who oppose (the ID law) tell me whose vote they want canceled out.”
A similarly strict Texas voter ID law was weakened by a federal appeals court after a panel of judges determined that the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minority voters. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that African-Americans were 1.79 times more likely – and Latinos 2.42 times more likely – than whites to lack the required identification.
Judges have also found that minority voters are less likely to own a car and therefore less likely to get a driver’s license that could be used as an ID.
The appellate court did not strike down the Texas law entirely, but under a temporary fix signed off on by a federal judge, the state’s voters won’t have to show ID in the November general election.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called voter fraud “rampant” in Texas. A records request from News21 to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas shows that more than 360 allegations of voter fraud were sent to the attorney general since 2012. Fifteen of those cases were successfully prosecuted. Four of those convicted were voters – the rest were elections officials or third-party volunteers.
Minnite, who has studied voter fraud for 15 years, said that actual instances of fraud lie somewhere between the number successfully prosecuted and the number of allegations. In her experience, few allegations meet the criteria of fraud: “intentional corruption of the electoral process” by voters.
“Large numbers getting reduced, reduced, reduced at each level is the pattern that I’ve seen over and over and over again,” said Minnite, the Rutgers professor. “The assumption should be the reverse of what it is. It should be ‘We’ve got a lot of errors here.’”
Kim Strach, director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, testified in a recent court case about North Carolina’s voter ID law that she has referred two cases of voter impersonation to prosecutors since 2013.
In July, a federal appeals court for the 4th Circuit decided that the North Carolina law intentionally discriminated against minority voters and ordered the state to make voter ID requirements less strict.
In attempting to “combat voter fraud and promote public confidence,” the state ignored the issue of absentee ballot fraud, instead cracking down on voter impersonation, a problem “that did not exist,” according to the court decision. Absentee ballots are “disproportionately used by whites,” the court said, while the voter ID restrictions enacted “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
State Sen. Ron Rabin, who helped push the voter ID bill through the North Carolina Senate, said the law wasn’t intended to discriminate. “I don’t want to disenfranchise anybody,” he said. “I want to have them enfranchised so that one vote, one person. That’s the whole thought behind that whole bill.”
Presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that he was “afraid the election was going to be rigged” without ID laws. “There’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”
To vote repeatedly in person on Election Day – the kind of fraud that Trump worries about – someone would have to steal another voter’s ballot. Minnite, the Rutgers professor, says that’s as difficult as “pickpocketing a cop.”
A voter would need to know names, addresses and other identifying information about whoever they were impersonating, she said. Then they would have to show up to the polling place and pretend to be that other person in front of the same elections officials who had likely seen them vote in their own name. Beyond that, they’d have to hope that nobody in the polling place knew the person they were impersonating.
That’s not to say fraud doesn’t happen at all.
In Arizona, 13 cases were prosecuted for double voting. One of those was Mesa resident Regina Beaupre, who was convicted in 2015 after voting in Michigan and Arizona. She was 71 years old. Carol Hannah was similarly caught for voting in Arizona and Colorado. She argued in court that both cases involved local races and didn’t constitute double voting, because no candidates appeared on both ballots. An appeals court agreed and threw out the 2015 conviction. Neither of these cases would have been prevented with voter ID.
In 2014, Verna Roehm, a 77-year-old from Waxhaw, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to voting twice. Roehm voted once at the polls and a second time with an absentee ballot in the name of her dead husband. She told prosecutors she had fulfilled her husband’s dying wish to cast his ballot for Mitt Romney in November 2012.
Since only one of Roehm’s ballots was cast in person, her crime also would not have been prevented with voter ID.
Sean Holstege, Hillary Davis and Andrew Clark from News21; and Tracy Wood from Voice of OC contributed to this report.