Is voter fraud really a concern in US elections?

"It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

People hold signs as they take part in a rally demanding a fair count of the votes of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 4, 2020.  (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
People hold signs as they take part in a rally demanding a fair count of the votes of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 4, 2020.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)

Since the presidential elections in 2016, US President Donald Trump has warned repeatedly of voter fraud affecting US elections, with the rhetoric intensifying on and after Election Day last week.

Even before President-elect Joe Biden was declared as the winner of the 2020 elections, Trump's campaign began legal challenges in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, claiming that votes were cast illegally and that Democrats "stole" the election.

Despite the claims of widespread voter fraud in this election and smaller scale claims made by the president in the 2016 elections, studies have found that actual voter fraud is notoriously rare in reality.

A 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, a bipartisan law and public policy institute, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually due to other issues, such as clerical error or bad data-matching practices. The report reviewed elections that were studied for voter fraud and found incident rates between 0.0003% and 0.0025%, meaning 1 in 33,000 to 40,000.

"It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls," wrote the report.

Clerical, technical and administrative errors have been shown to be behind a number of alleged cases of voter fraud circulated on social media since Election Day, including allegations of dead voters and temporary inconsistencies in the reporting of voting results.

Lorraine Minnite, author of The Myth of Voter Fraud and a professor of political science at Rutgers University, also found that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and that reports of fraud tended to be associated with false claims and administrative errors.

"A review of news stories over a two-year period found that reports of voter fraud were most often limited to local races and individual acts and fell into three categories: unsubstantiated or false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error," wrote Minnite in a report titled "The Politics of Voter Fraud" in 2007, adding that "the use of baseless voter fraud allegations for partisan advantage has become the exclusive domain of Republican party activists."

Studies by Harvard University, Arizona State University, The Washington Post and Dartmouth College, among others, similarly found that voter fraud was extremely unusual.

While in 2016 Trump claimed that millions of illegal votes had been cast for his competitor, Democrat Hillary Clinton, an election integrity commission formed by the president after the 2016 presidential election failed to find evidence of widespread fraud and was disbanded.

Concerning the 2020 presidential elections specifically, election officials and secretaries of state in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania have stressed that there is little to no evidence of any significant voter fraud, according to Voice of America.


RUDY GIULIANI, the president's personal attorney, claimed on Fox News that he has over 50 witnesses and video recordings proving that Republican observers were kept away from ballot counters in Pennsylvania. The state’s ballot counting process was livestreamed and a court ruled shortly before Election Day that observers could be as close as six feet to the counting process.

"I don't know if there's enough evidence to set aside the entire election. Certainly not around the country, maybe in Pennsylvania," Giuliani said at a press conference.

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney-general, called Republican lawsuits against the voting process in the state "frivolous," in an interview with 60 Minutes.

"Each campaign had observers in the room while the ballots were being counted," said Shapiro. "In addition to that, even if you're not a certified watcher, you can turn on the Iivestream and watch it on TV and keep an eye on the activity if you'd like."

Some Republican politicians and supporters have raised concerns about the president's campaign to contest the election results.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie warned Trump on ABC News that unless the president can provide evidence, Republicans won't be able to back him.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, seemed skeptical that Trump's legal battles would change the election results, telling CNN: "Whether you like it or not, it's time to get behind the winner of the race."

Ben Ginsberg, a Republic attorney who helped push forward the legal strategy that won the presidency for George W. Bush in 2000, also spoke out against the Trump campaign's strategy in an interview with 60 Minutes, expressing concerns that the lawsuits could be aimed at slowing down the ballot count in some states in order to prevent them from completing the count in time for the Electoral College to meet.

If the states do not complete the count in time, the vote could theoretically go to the new Congress that must be in place by January 3. In that case, the House of Representatives would vote for president, with each state delegation receiving one vote, and the Senate would vote for vice president by the same rule.

This doesn't mean that there aren't issues with the voting system in America. 

The Pew Center on the States found that about 24 million voter registrations in the US are no longer valid or are "significantly inaccurate" and that over 1.8 million deceased individuals are still listed as voters. The center also found that about 2.75 million people are registered to vote in more than one state.

At the same time, the center also found that at least 51 million citizens who are eligible to vote, almost 24% of eligible citizens, are unregistered.

However, the Pew report did not claim that these inaccuracies led to actual voter fraud and stressed that the purpose of the report was to encourage districts to keep accurate and updated voter rolls.

Some of the most common claims by the Trump campaign, affiliated officials and social media supporters have included accusations of dead people voting and of mail-in ballots being edited or incorrectly counted.


Mail-in voting


One of the largest attacks has been on mail-in voting, which Trump has repeatedly claimed is not secure.

The president himself used a third party to vote by mail in the Florida primary ballot in August, thereby technically using both a mail-in ballot and ballot collection in one vote, both practices he has strongly condemned.

Minnite told the National Post last week that while mail-in voting could potentially be more vulnerable as it isn't completely in the hands of election officials, five states have long sent out mail-in ballots to all their citizens without any major problems.

Trump has warned that mail-in ballots are not secure and could be adjusted or faked, and has claimed that mail-in ballots do not require postmarks or "any identification whatsoever."

It is standard for mail to have postmarks. In Pennsylvania, one of the most contested states in the election, voters must have a valid ID or driver's license in order to apply for a mail-in ballot.

One claim made by the president was that many ballots arrived late and were illegally counted after the election. "They're finding ballots all of a sudden," said Trump on Thursday.

Mail-in ballots are allowed to arrive after Election Day in some states as long as they're postmarked by November 3, including in Pennsylvania, where the deadline was extended to three days after Election Day, according to Forbes.

The US Postal Service has suffered from delays and issues in recent months since the Trump administration began holding up funds to the service and implemented policy changes which caused slowdowns in mail delivery and processing. The Associated Press found memos showing that the USPS leadership had eliminated overtime and late delivery trips and cut hours at post offices, which led to slowdowns in mail processing and delivery.

In July, the Postal Service warned Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that the service may not be able to deliver ballots in time to be counted under state deadlines.

In an interview with Fox Business Network in August, Trump stated openly that he was attempting to slow up the postal service in order to prevent "universal mail-in voting."

"Now, they need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," said Trump in the interview in reference to efforts to provide $25 billion in emergency funding to USPS. "Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting, they just can’t have it."


AL SCHMIDT, a Republican election commissioner in Philadelphia, told 60 Minutes that it was expected that it would take longer than election night to count all the votes, especially due to the large number of expected mail-in ballots.

"At the end of the day, we are counting eligible votes cast by voters," said Schmidt. "The controversy surrounding it is something I don't understand. It's people making accusations that we wouldn't count those votes or people are adding fraudulent votes – or just coming up with all sorts of crazy stuff."

Schmidt added that commission offices have received calls from people "reminding us that 'This is what the Second Amendment [the right to bear arms] is for: people like us.'"

The president has also implied that the large number of mail-in ballots supporting Biden is evidence of fraud, although surveys from even before Election Day found that the number of Democrats voting by mail vastly outnumbered the number of Republicans doing the same.

A few incidents in which polling numbers seemed to spike unusually in favor of Biden were reported in a few districts, but many of these incidents were due to temporary technical or clerical errors that were quickly corrected and explained by local election officials – although the corrections were not always shared by social media accounts which shared the erroneous result reports.

Spikes in support of Biden in some districts were also due to the simultaneous reporting of large bunches of counted mail-in ballots, of which a large amount were cast by Democrats.

In Wisconsin for example, social media users complained about a "ballot dump" overnight as a sharp uptick in votes for Biden was reported. The president echoed the claims on Twitter. The "ballot dump" was simply the simultaneous reporting of mail-in ballots, according to USA Today. "We are not finding ballots," explained Julietta Henry, director of elections for Milwaukee County, to PolitiFact National. "Ballots are being counted."

Another practice which has raised concerns is ballot collection or "ballot harvesting" which allows third parties to collect and deliver ballots in some states.

While advocates of the practice argue that the ballot collection helps those with mobility issues or those who live far from polling locations exercise their right to vote, opponents have voiced concerns that the third parties are not monitored strongly enough and could discard or alter ballots based on political motives.


Dead voters


In the aftermath of Election Day, rumors of dead people voting, altered ballots, suspicious leaps in voting numbers and other claims have spread across social media, with some claims being shared by the president and other politicians.

One instance which gained traction on social media was the claim that thousands of dead people had "voted" in Michigan.

Austen Fletcher, a right-wing activist, created a few videos backing this claim, including one in which he searches for a voter who was recorded as voting in the presidential elections named William Bradley who was born in 1902 and died in 1984. Fletcher claimed that this showed that a dead person had managed to "vote."

But CNN confirmed with Lawrence Garcia, the principal attorney for Detroit, that Bradley's son – who bears the same name and is an eligible voter and still very much alive – had voted and had been accidentally recorded as the deceased William Bradley due to a clerical error.

CNN also found that a viral list of 14,000 "deceased voters" included a number of people who were actually alive and had voted and that the dead people on the list had not voted. The list has since been removed from the site hosting it, according to the network.

Clerical errors have led to similar issues in other instances, including in some districts where voters were at one point not required to provide a birth date so the system would automatically assign them a default one when the district began using digital voter rolls.

A series of other rumors of voter fraud that have spread in recent days and weeks have been investigated and debunked by officials, experts, fact checkers and investigative journalists. A number of other allegations are still pending in lawsuits in courts in multiple states.