‘Voter fraud’ bogeyman raises its head again at US midterms
Trump repeats 2016 claims of mass voter fraud, but they’re not borne out by research
Early voting at a polling station at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California on Sunday. Photograph: Mike Nelson/EPA
As the midterm election campaign finally comes to a close on Tuesday, the issue of voter fraud and the integrity of the election process has again raised its head.
On Sunday, Georgia’s secretary of state Brian Kemp announced that his office was investigating Democrats for allegedly trying to hack the state’s voter registration files. Kemp is locked in a tight gubernatorial race with Stacey Abrams, the 44-year-old former state house minority leader who hopes to become the first African-American governor in history.
Kemp had already been criticised for perceived conflict of interest – as secretary of state he is responsible for overseeing the electoral process. Georgia has been locked in a dispute over voter suppression – a particularly sensitive issue given the state’s history of denying the franchise to people of colour.
It emerged last month that Kemp has put 50,000 voter registrations on hold – most of them African-American – because their names did not precisely match those on other government databases. Abrams has accused him of voter suppression; Kemp argues he is merely following the rules and guarding against voter fraud.
Controversy over voter registration has also surfaced elsewhere. In North Dakota, some Native Americans have effectively been prohibited from voting because they do not have traditional residential addresses that are required to vote under state law.
Once again, US president Donald Trump has inflamed the issue, repeating the claims he made during the 2016 election campaign that widespread voter fraud was taking place.
On Monday he tweeted: “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting). Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you!”
In particular, the president has singled out California, claiming that “millions and millions of people” vote illegally in the state. His claims are not borne out by research.
Evidence suggests that voter fraud is in fact very rare. A study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found that, between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 instances of voter fraud out of a total of one billion votes. A report by the justice department under then president George W Bush found similar results.
Trump famously blamed illegal voting for his loss of the popular vote in 2016. In late November 2016 he tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
It is quite possible that the president may return to this argument if Republicans underperform in Tuesday’s elections. Whether he will try to take action against the alleged practice is another matter.
Shortly after Trump took office he set up a commission of investigation to examine instances of voter fraud, but the project was disbanded in less than a year. Trump blamed states for failing to hand over voter data, but critics claimed that states simply had found no evidence to bolster the president’s claim.
Although Trump pledged that the department of homeland security would look into the matter, there has been little sign of progress. Perhaps Tuesday’s election results may help to revive the dormant project and refocus the president on the issue ahead of the 2020 presidential election.