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Why Voter Fraud Doesn't Matter, but Allegations of Rigged Elections Do

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

A lot of accusations get tossed around come election time, and this year has been no exception. Some are old -- accusations of voter fraud have been thrown around for at least a decade and have spawned strict state voter ID statutes. Some are new -- few candidates, if any, have claimed outright that an election is rigged and refused to say they will accept the results of an election if they lose.

Both claims sound serious, striking at the heart of our democracy. But the negative effects of one of these charges have been disproven, while the consequences of the other may be right around the corner.

The (Mostly) Myth of Voter Fraud

The claim goes something like this: unscrupulous voters could register to vote in more than one place, vote in districts where they don't live, vote more than once, or provide false information to election officials. And as Justin Levitt noted in the Washington Times, this can be a real concern: "This sort of misdirection is pretty common, actually. Election fraud happens ... Or vote buying. Or coercion. Or fake registration forms. Or voting from the wrong address. Or ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam." And then there's pretending to be someone else at the polls, which Levitt describes as a "clunky way to steal an election."

Levitt began tracking allegations of voter fraud, and looked at "general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014," a data set containing at least 1 billion ballots. And in all, found just 31 specific, credible allegations of voter fraud at the polls. To put that number in context, all 31 of those votes would not have been enough to swing the state of Florida for Al Gore in the 2000 election. As Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., put it, "You're more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas than to find any kind of voter fraud."

The Very Real Voter ID Law Response

In response to allegations of voter fraud -- or for more sinister reasons that courts have touched on below -- some states began passing voter ID laws requiring voters to present some form of identification at the polls in order to cast a ballot. Voter ID laws can vary from state to state, from strict photo ID requirements in some states to no ID requirement at all in others.

In general, courts have upheld these requirements. In 2008, the Supreme Court looked at Indiana's ID law that required a person to present a U.S. or Indiana ID in order to cast a ballot. (Voters without a photo ID could cast a provisional ballot, and had to visit a designated government office within 10 days with a photo ID or a signed statement saying they cannot afford one in order to have their votes counted.) The Court found the law constitutional, even though the state failed to produce any evidence of the kind of fraud the law was passed to prohibit.

But some courts have started to push back on overly restrictive ID laws. The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down North Carolina's voter identification requirement, but for reasons that may be unique to the state. Along with requiring photo ID in order to vote, the North Carolina law also abolished same-day voter registration and ended preregistration. But it wasn't just the text of the law that the court had a problem with -- it was the context:

... the General Assembly enacted [the laws] in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The district court clearly erred in ignoring or dismissing this historical background evidence, all of which supports a finding of discriminatory intent.

Because the law was passed with discriminatory intent, the court ruled it invalid. Given the near absence of any in-person voter fraud, it's fair to wonder whether these voter ID laws accomplish the goal of preventing fraud, and, if not, what they actually do prevent. Critics of the laws point to a disparate impact on minority and senior voters -- those less likely to have an ID -- and many believe voter ID laws were passed with that purpose in mind. The Fourth Circuit felt the same in its opinion on North Carolina's ID law: "Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices" the court noted. The state's General Assembly then acted on that data in multiple ways, "all of which disproportionately affected African Americans."

The Dangerous Allegation of Election Rigging

Since August, Donald Trump has been suggesting that the "election is going to be rigged." And the type of fraud he's alleging -- "People are going to walk in and they're going to vote 10 times, maybe, who knows?" -- is exactly the kind that voter ID laws are intended to stop and the kind that happens just 31 times in fourteen years. But the fact that an election can't be rigged or could not effectively be swayed in the way Trump imagines doesn't make his claims any less serious.

The legitimacy of any representative democracy is the belief that the government officials selected to represent the people were chosen fairly, and that their presence in government is the will of their constituency. To suggest a rigged election, or a corrupt election process, is to undermine that legitimacy. Absent the legitimacy of elected officials, the laws they enact and represent also lose their legitimacy.

And, according to recent psychological studies, the perceived legitimacy of law effects whether people follow it or not:

... people who respond to the moral appropriateness of different laws may (for example) use drugs or engage in illegal sexual practices, feeling that these crimes are not immoral, but at the same time will refrain from stealing. Similarly, if they regard legal authorities as more legitimate, they are less likely to break any laws, for they will believe that they ought to follow all of them, regardless of the potential for punishment.

Delegitimizing the election's process and results can have dangerous consequences, both during and after the election. Trump has already called on supporters to monitor polling places for possible voter fraud. In limited circumstances, citizens can enforce election laws, but there is a serious concern that poll monitoring will be less about voter fraud and more about voter intimidation.

Trump has also not confirmed that he'll accept the election results if he loses, a stance that has left many wondering what shape that non-acceptance may take, both on his part and from his supporters. And that uncertainty can be a lot more dangerous than the one-in-32 million chance that a single person votes twice.

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