Donald Trump is very worried about voter fraud. We know that he is worried, of course, because he has tweeted about it.
He has shared completely false anecdotes relayed by German golfers in Florida about it. And now he's set up a commission to investigate it (which you might have missed during all this Russia madness), despite that it is a certain fact that millions of illegals did not vote in the last election.
This hasn't stopped politicians from fussing about voter fraud before, though. But how have previous deep dives into so-called voter fraud fared? Let us investigate these past investigations, to better understand just how much of a waste of time Trump's exercise will be.
The Curious Case of the Civic Canines
Shortly before the 2000 election, a Jack Russell terrier mix ended up in the voter rolls in Maryland after her 82-year-old owner kindly registered her. Jack Russell terrier mixes — along with calico cats, parakeets, and pet ferrets — are not allowed to vote in the United States.
Is this evidence that thousands of enterprising pets are illegally voting?
No. Holly the dog did not vote. Her owner only signed her up because she wanted to show how easy it was to commit voter fraud. It is also easy, she soon learned, to get caught by officials if you are one of the very few people to test the system. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice found "only nine specific reports of dogs found on the voter rolls," most from people who wanted to see if they'd get caught. Another elderly woman in Seattle let her Australian shepherd–terrier mix sign an absentee ballot with a paw print.
The lesson of this story is to not try to test the voting system with your beloved family pet, because the court will probably charge you and not your dog. Also, apparently it is unwise to trust terrier mixes and grandmas around civic-engagement opportunities.
The Case of the Dreadful Dead Voters
Last October, Trump argued that “People that have died 10 years ago are still voting." If this were literally true, it would be somewhat disquieting, of course; it's bad enough that baby boomers are driving politics off the deep end while validly taking part in democracy. A month later, Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina refused to concede after losing a close race, citing his belief that ballots cast by dead people led to his downfall. These are not new complaints, and politicians have often invoked ghosts of elections past when contesting an electoral result.
Are the dead guiding American politics from beyond?
No. When the specter of dead voters comes up, the explanation is usually simple and non-paranormal. Often, the dead voters are alive; when the New York Times knocked on the doors of supposedly deceased voters in 1998, most of them answered and noted that they were "still alive, and well," although also murdered by an apparent clerical error. Sometimes, those searching for fraud conflate a dead John S. Doe with the civically minded and very much breathing John B. Doe. Other times, people vote absentee, and then die before Election Day. (And, yes, those votes count sometimes!)
Now, it is true that states are often slow to clean up their voter rolls, which means that many dead people are registered to vote. However, since they rarely make it to the polls, this is not fraud.
There are a handful of cases of people fraudulently voting using dead people’s identities, cherry-picked anecdotes that keep the conspiracy alive along with most of the so-called dead voters. One or two cases of fraud, however, does not make a democracy-ending trend. In North Carolina, there was one woman who cast a vote in her dead mother's name. She said that her mother asked, “If anything happens to me, you have my power of attorney, and you be sure to vote for Donald Trump.”
The Case of the Very Long Commission Prequel
Shortly after the 2000 election, conservatives announced that they were worried about voter fraud. They'd won the election, of course, but it was perhaps too close for comfort, given that the Supreme Court had to get involved and all. And thus, a commission to investigate the myriad unlikely schemes that could have led to this situation was born.
Five years later, a report revealed that voter fraud was nearly nonexistent, something that was already obvious from available evidence. Those investigated had mostly just made mistakes — like felons unaware they were barred from voting and who noted they were offenders on registration cards. In other words, not a sinister plot.
Despite the fact that the commission found no evidence of massive voter fraud, state legislatures began passing voter-ID laws to combat this nonexistent threat. Voter IDs would not stop the types of fraud that Republicans think exist, despite not existing.
The Case of the Kansas Convictions
Trump's election commission will be run by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who said during his first campaign for the office in 2010 that voter fraud was "a very significant threat to our right to vote," and said that groups were illegally registering undocumented immigrants at the meatpacking plants where many of them work. The state gave him the power to prosecute election crimes, and he helped craft a law that made people prove they were citizens before registering to vote for local elections.
How did that work out?
A federal court struck down this law — as well as similar restrictions in Alabama and Georgia — although the case is still snaking its way through the legal system. A judge noted that the rule could have kept 18,000 Kansans from voting, while doing little to tackle a problem that is not a problem. Meanwhile, Kobach has convicted nine people of voter fraud since gaining the power to do so in 2015. Only one was a noncitizen — someone who would have been stopped by having to show a birth certificate before voting.
The Case of the Double-Dipping Citizens
Just as many people stay on the voter rolls long after they die, some people stay on voter rolls when they move to a new state — thus ending up registered in two places. Investigations into voter fraud often tackle these "double voters."
Are people who are voting in two states a scourge on democracy?
No. One academic recently looked up all the credible voter fraud allegations he could find between 2000 and 2014. He found 31 cases. In that time, more than 1 billion ballots were tallied. However, if the Trump administration wants to help states clean up their voter rolls they might want to start from inside the White House. Steve Bannon and Tiffany Trump were both registered in two states before last year's election.
The Case of the Terrible Trump-Hating Illegals
You've already heard Trump's accusation.
I probably already know the answer, but … what happened?
Millions of undocumented immigrants did not vote in the 2016 election. Millions of dead people did not vote in the 2016 election. This is like setting up a federal commission to study if Americans want to watch another Fast and Furious movie. We already know the answer to this question.
Texas, which has expressed interest in expanding its own voter fraud hunt, found one woman who voted illegally in 2012 and 2014. She wasn't aware that she wasn't allowed to vote, and noted that she wasn't a citizen on a voter registration form. She is a Republican, she voted for Mitt Romney, and she will now spend eight years in jail.
The Case of the Crime-Busting Voter ID Laws
After the last surge in voter fraud worries, many Republican-led state legislatures took the commonsense step of passing laws aimed at preventing types of voter fraud that aren't happening often. To do this, they employed measures that wouldn't have even affected the very types of voter fraud they were supposedly trying to prevent. Several lawmakers let slip the more feasible reason for the rush of legislation. "I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up," one U.S. House member said a year ago. "And now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference as well." The 2016 election was the first presidential race without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act in decades, and 14 states were trying out brand-new voter restrictions aimed at nonexistent fraud (while others were struck down before Election Day for targeting minorities with "surgical precision," as the Fourth Circuit Court put it). Hundreds of thousands of citizens in voter ID states didn't have the necessary IDs to vote — mostly low-income voters and minorities.
As Trump has ramped up the voter fraud scavenger hunt, new states are introducing voting restrictions. In five states, laws have already passed. As election-law expert Rick Hasen wrote earlier this month, the question isn't whether voter fraud exists anymore. The question is "why a state ... can burden the right to vote with unnecessary restrictions for no good reason."