What Is Electoral and Voter Fraud?

Claims of voter fraud have become commonplace in the American political landscape. What exactly is voter fraud? How prevalent is it? And what do we know about how and when it happens?

For something to be fraud, it must be intentional. So, when discussing voter or electoral fraud, we are talking about intentional corruption of the election process.

People often use the terms "electoral fraud" and "voter fraud" interchangeably. Here, we'll explain what these terms mean and how they differ. We will also offer examples of voter and election fraud.

What Is Voter Fraud?

Voter fraud is the illegal or unlawful behavior of voters. It can come in many forms.

Some of the more common types of voter fraud include:

  • Duplicate voting. This happens when someone impersonates another voter so they can vote twice.
  • Vote selling. This is when a registered voter offers to vote a certain way in exchange for money.
  • Non-citizen voting. Sometimes, non-citizens try to vote in an election when they do not have voting rights.
  • Felon voting. Some states ban convicted felons from exercising their civic rights. If a felon tries to vote, it may be voter fraud.
  • Cross-district voting. This happens when a person votes in a district where they don't live.

If you notice somebody engaging in any of these behaviors, report them. Talk to a poll worker or election official. Let them know what you saw. Reporting is the only way to prevent voter fraud.

What Is Electoral Fraud?

Electoral fraud or election fraud is illegal interference with the election process.

Examples of electoral fraud can include:

  • Illegal discarding of voter registration cards. Campaign or agency workers throw away voter registration cards.
  • Vote buying. A politician or campaign worker offers to pay voters to cast their ballot for the party's candidate.
  • Forgery. Workers or volunteers forging signatures on a petition to get an issue or candidate on a ballot.
  • Ballot harvestingThis is when an agency or campaign worker collects absentee ballots or mail-in ballots and submits them to election officials or vote counters.
  • Robocall campaigns. Phone workers call potential voters and spread misinformation about election day, polling locations, or other election-related information.
  • Illegal activity. This can be in the counting and certifying election results, such as claims that voting machines are changing votes.
  • Violations of campaign finance laws. This could involve failing to report campaign donations or donating more than the law allows.

Typically, you only see this kind of behavior in significant elections. For example, you likely wouldn't see ballot box stuffing in a school board election. But you may see this in a presidential election.

Examples of Voter Fraud Cases

There are all kinds of voter fraud. Some involve the voting process, and others are election crimes. Any activity that impacts election integrity can qualify as voter fraud.

Let's look at these types of voter fraud in greater detail below.

(For more comprehensive information about election-related crimes, see Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses.)

Voter Registration Fraud

It's usually campaign workers who typically commit voter registration fraud. Rarely would a single person engage in this behavior. They don't have the power or opportunity to do so. We often see this happen during a voter registration drive.

There can be cases where an individual at the election office helps someone fill out their voter registration and forges the voter's signature.

Another example of voter registration fraud is filling out and submitting a voter registration card in the name of a fictional character, such as Mickey Mouse. By submitting false information, the offender is engaging in illegal activity.

Voter Impersonation Fraud

This happens when someone impersonates someone else to cast a vote.

Voter impersonation fraud isn't all that common. In a series of studies between 2009 and 2017, researchers from various states and partisan and non-partisan sources identified very few instances of this behavior.

'Dead Citizen' Voting

One form of voter impersonation that remains a challenge is "dead citizen voting." KCNC-TV in Denver found dozens of mail ballots "cast" by people who were dead.

Whether those were actual votes or whether local election officials made clerical errors was unclear.

Vote Selling

Vote selling is the flip side of vote buying.

In 2000, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners discovered that over 1,000 Illinois voters participated on Vote-auction.com. On this site, people offered to sell their votes for the presidential election. Authorities shut down the website.

Voting in Multiple States

People move and own homes in multiple states. They may register to vote in more than one jurisdiction.

By law, voters can only vote in one state for federal elections. Duplicate registration presents a risk of voter fraud, so some states share their voter registration data to avoid duplication.

There are instances of people voting more than once in an election. One such case involved Carol Hannah, an older woman the authorities indicted for illegally voting in Arizona and Colorado. She voted by mail in Colorado and in person in Arizona.

Hannah escaped prosecution because the court found that the two elections didn't involve the same candidates. So the court said Arizona had failed to prove that she cast more than one vote in a single election.

Election officials may also encounter this problem with absentee voting. A person can request early voting ballots from two locations, and submitting more than one ballot may skew the votes.

Non-Citizen Voting

Non-citizens can't vote in national or state elections. But, according to a 2019 NPR story, there are times when they can register to vote and cast their ballots.

In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, using the motor vehicle registration process for voter registration resulted in people getting cards without voting eligibility.

In a January 2019 advisory, the Texas Secretary of State and Attorney General's offices tried to block some 95,000 "non-citizens" from voting. By April 2019, the state had spent $450,000 in attorneys' fees to end a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleging that the state was trying to suppress votes. The ACLU showed evidence that tens of thousands of those voters had proved their citizenship or had voted in prior elections.

As a result of the lawsuit, the State of Texas agreed to stop using its "voter purge" mechanism.

Felon Voting

When someone is found guilty of a felony, they may lose their right to vote. This ban can be temporary or permanent.

In Maine and Vermont, felons do not lose their right to vote. Some of the states that strip felons of their voting rights, at least temporarily, include:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Tennessee
  • Wyoming

There is no federal law stating that felons lose their right to vote. State law controls this.

Voting fraud involving felons is rare and often results from a person not knowing they cannot vote. The person may be on parole or probation, as with Keith Sellars.

Felon voting fraud carries a prison term. The irony of this is that trying to cast an illegal vote further strips a person of their right to vote.

Examples of Electoral Fraud Cases

Remember, election fraud is distinct from voter fraud. This type of fraud directly involves the voting process. Sometimes, it's election workers who engage in this activity.

We'll examine each type of election fraud in greater detail below.

Voter Registration Card Fraud

This type of fraud takes a couple of forms, including:

  • Submitting fictional names on voter registration cards
  • Filling out voter registration cards without a person's consent
  • Forging signatures

One of the most famous cases of voter registration card fraud involved an ACORN worker in a voter registration drive who created false registration cards to meet a job quota.

Forged Signatures on Ballot Initiative

This type of election fraud seeks to influence which candidates or laws appear on the ballot.

Campaign workers or volunteers may forge signatures or falsify signatures on ballot petitions.

Vote Buying

The flip side of vote selling is vote buying. This has happened in West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky. In some states, voter fraud rings pay people in cash (or drinks) to induce them to vote for a specific candidate or a political party.

A 2012 Washington Post report on vote buying noted that this is a big problem with absentee ballot voters. Absentee ballots don't need identification, so strict ID laws can't protect against this fraud.

Election Official Fraud

This happens when election officials manipulate ballots and vote counts. They may throw ballots away or use qualified voters' names to cast false ballots.

Ballot Harvesting

Authorities have caught campaign workers and hired workers collecting absentee or mail-in ballots to submit to polling authorities. The problem is when they don't submit all the ballots to the polling place.

In a North Carolina election, in a county where only 19% of registered voters were Republican, more than 60% of mail-in ballots came from Republican voters.

An unexpectedly large number of voters who specifically requested mail-in ballots did not return them. Polling places got fewer than 60% of African American mail-in ballots and less than 40% of votes cast by Native American voters.

North Carolina's State Board of Elections declined to certify the Republican candidate as the winner because of these irregularities. It later discovered that a political operative was running a voter fraud ring. They collected ballots and forged witness certifications. Then, they returned these ballots in a way that "concealed the fact that the voter had not personally mailed it himself."

According to the indictment, the political operative acted with intent to defraud and "did obstruct public justice [by] resulting in the counting of spoiled absentee ballots."

Voter Misinformation Campaigns

Deceptive misinformation campaigns have significantly increased in recent years. Examples of deceptive practices people use to sway the outcome of an election include:

  • Robocalling campaigns or flyers that give voters inaccurate information about where and when to vote
  • Sample ballots that misidentify candidates

What Is the Penalty for Voter Fraud?

Voter fraud is a felony offense that may carry a prison sentence. The exact punishment depends on the state and the nature of the fraud.

How To Report Voter Fraud

There are various advocacy programs to help reduce and report voter fraud. One of these is "True the Vote." This non-partisan voters' rights organization works to ensure the integrity of U.S. elections. Its website has a listing of state-by-state election fraud hotlines, as well as online complaint forms.

You can also report suspected voter fraud to a local FBI or U.S. attorney's office. If you have questions about what is election or voter fraud, talk to an election law attorney in your area.

A Voting Rights Lawyer Can Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your voting rights. A civil rights lawyer can also explain how to identify and report voter or election fraud.

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