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 considered fraud, it must be intentional. So, when we are talking about voter or electoral fraud, we are talking about an intentional corruption of the election process.
The terms "electoral fraud" and "voter fraud" are often used interchangeably. In this article, we will distinguish them based on who is taking action.
What Is Voter Fraud?
"Voter fraud" is the illegal behavior of individual voters, such as:
- Duplicate voting: when someone impersonates another voter to vote twice
- Vote selling: when a voter offers to vote a certain way for pay
- A non-citizen voting in an election when they do not have a right to vote
- A felon voting in an election before they have a right to do so
- Voting in a district where the voter does not (or no longer) lives
What Is Electoral Fraud?
"Electoral fraud" or "election fraud" is illegal interference with the process of an election. Examples of electoral fraud can include:
- Campaign or agency workers throwing away voter registration cards
- Vote buying: when a campaign offers money for votes
- Workers or volunteers forging signatures on a petition to get an issue or person on a ballot
- Ballot harvesting: when a person or agency or campaign workers collect absentee or mail-in ballots to submit them (which provides an opportunity to change the vote or fail to submit the ballot for counting)
- Robocall campaigns spreading misinformation about election dates, polling locations, or other election-related information in order to prevent some voters from voting
- Illegal activity related to the counting and certification of election results, such as claims that some voting machines are changing votes
- Violations of campaign finance laws (failing to report campaign donations or sources as required by law, or donating more than is allowed)
Examples of Voter Fraud Cases
Let's look at each of these types of voter fraud in greater detail below.
For more comprehensive information about election-related crimes, see Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, 7th Ed.
Voter Registration Fraud
Voter registration fraud is usually committed by a campaign or a worker on a voter registration drive, not by an individual voter (see below in election fraud). But there can be instances where a person helps someone fill out their voter registration card, and the helper forges the voter's signature.
Another example of voter registration fraud is filling out and sending in a voter registration card in the name of a fictional character, such as Mickey Mouse.
Voter Impersonation Fraud
This occurs when someone impersonates someone else to cast a vote.
In 19 studies conducted between 2009 and 2017, researchers from various states and from partisan and non-partisan sources identified few instances of voter fraud from impersonation.
Voting by the "Dead"
A form of voter impersonation, this continues to be a challenge. KCNC-TV in Denver turned up dozens of mail ballots "cast" by people who were dead.
It was unclear, however, whether those were real votes or whether clerical errors were made by local election officials.
Vote selling, a less common type of election fraud, is the flip side of vote buying.
In 2000, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners discovered that more than 1,000 Illinois voters had participated on a website called Vote-auction.com, where people offered up their vote for the presidential election. That website has since been shut down.
Voting in Two States
People move and people own homes in multiple states. In each of these situations, people can wind up being registered to vote in more than one location.
But voters can only vote in one state for federal elections. Duplicate registrations present a risk for 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 was that of Carol Hannah, an elderly woman indicted for illegally voting in both Arizona and Colorado. She voted by mail in Colorado and voted in person in Arizona.
Initially found guilty of voter fraud, her case went to the Court of Appeals. The Court found that no candidate or issue appeared on both ballots. The election process in the two states did not count as one single election. Therefore, the Court held that the State had failed to prove that she had cast more than one vote in a single election.
Non-citizens are not allowed to vote in national or state elections. But as a 2019 NPR story recounted, sometimes non-citizens do end up being registered to vote, and some do vote.
In the case of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the connection of motor vehicle registration to voter registration cards resulted in people receiving cards who were ineligible to vote.
The Texas Secretary of State's office attempted to block some 95,000 "non-citizens" from voting in an advisory it sent out in January 2019. By April 2019, the state was paying $450,000 in attorneys' fees to end a lawsuit brought by the ACLU that alleged the state was trying to suppress votes. The ACLU provided evidence that tens of thousands of those voters had proved their citizenship or had voted in prior elections.
After a person has been found guilty of a felony crime, they may lose their right to vote temporarily or even permanently.
In Maine and Vermont, felons do not lose their right to vote. In Arizona, Wyoming, Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Delaware, felons may lose their right to vote permanently. In other states, a felon's voting rights can be restored at some time.
Voting fraud involving felons is rare and often results from a person not knowing that they are not yet eligible to vote because they are still on parole or probation, like the case of Keith Sellars. Felon voting fraud carries a prison term.
Examples of Electoral Fraud Cases
Let's look at each of these types 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 cards without consent
- Forging signatures
Arguably the most famous case of voter registration card fraud involved an ACORN worker in a voter registration drive creating false registration cards in order to meet a quota.
Forged Signatures on Ballot Initiative
This type of election fraud seeks to influence what appears on the ballot.
Workers or volunteers working on issues campaigns forge signatures or make up signatures on ballot petitions.
The flip side of vote selling is vote buying, which has occurred in West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky. In some states, voter fraud rings paid people in cash (or drinks) to induce them to vote for a candidate or a list of candidates.
A 2012 Washington Post report on vote buying noted this as a particular problem with absentee ballot voters. While much legislation and expense have gone into voter ID laws, no identification is needed for absentee ballots, so strict ID laws do nothing to protect against this kind of fraud.
Election Official Fraud
This occurs when election officials manipulate ballots and vote counts, including throwing away ballots or using voters' names to cast false ballots.
Incidents have been documented of campaign workers or hired workers collecting (or offering to collect) absentee or mail-in ballots to submit them to polling authorities. Not all of those ballots made it to the polling place.
In one election in North Carolina, in a county where only 19% of registered voters are Republican, more than 60% of mail-in ballots came from Republicans. (Republicans do vote more often by mail than Democrats.)
An unexpectedly large number of voters who specifically requested mail-in ballots did not return those ballots. Of the mail-in ballots requested by Black voters, fewer than 60% were returned; of the ballots requested by Native American voters, fewer than 40% were returned.
North Carolina's State Board of Elections declined to certify the Republican winner of the race because of these irregularities. It was later discovered that a political operative was running a voter fraud ring. Ballots were collected from voters, and witness certifications were signed saying that the person picking up the ballot had seen the voter sign the ballot when they had not. Then these ballots were mailed 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."
More people are choosing to vote by absentee ballot. The rate has tripled since 1980 and now accounts for as much as 20% nationally. Few of those mail-in voters likely know that their votes are less likely to be counted, more likely to be contested, and more likely to be compromised by fraud. According to a New York Times article, absentee ballot fraud is more common than in-person voter fraud.
Voter Misinformation Campaigns
Although not typically classified as voter or election fraud, intentionally deceptive misinformation campaigns have significantly increased in recent years. Examples of deceptive practices intended 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 penalty of time in prison.
How Do You Report Voter Fraud?
True the Vote is a non-partisan voters' rights organization that works to ensure the integrity of U.S. elections. Its website contains 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 office or to a local U.S. Attorney's office. If you have questions about what constitutes election or voter fraud, talk to an election law attorney in your area.