Vote of Confidence: Well-Cited Researcher Dispels Voter Fraud Allegations

By Tom McLaughlin

As the presidential election heads down the final stretch, there have been growing allegations of voter fraud and a rigged system by Donald Trump, with the Republican candidate even indicating that, should he lose, he may not be so quick to accept the results.

Those watching the debate closely may have noticed another name cited almost as frequently in the media – Lori Minnite, an associate professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University–Camden – who offers compelling counterpoints to Trump’s arguments.

We check in with Minnite, author of the book The Myth of Voter Fraud (Cornell University Press, 2010), who explains her research on the topic and discusses why such allegations continue to permeate American politics.

What are some of the some of the predominant and recurring allegations regarding voter fraud in American elections?

The allegations of voter fraud by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump echo familiar and recurrent themes in the political history of the United States: that dead people and undocumented immigrants are voting, that supporters of his opponent are going to try to vote multiple times, that ineligible people are going to mob polling places with their illegal and fraudulent votes.

lori-minnite_photoWhy do you think that these allegations have increased in recent years?

Since the contested presidential election in 2000, allegations of voter fraud have ramped up at every election in tandem with growing political polarization and, especially, with the election of our nation’s first black president. So racism and party competition are the driving forces behind these allegations. Having no basis, in fact, allegations of voter fraud are political weapons, as my research and the work of other scholars have shown. In the case of Mr. Trump, they are being used to erode trust in the electoral system in order to delegitimize the likely election of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

What first drew your interest in this topic?

I began researching the incidence of voter fraud in contemporary U.S. elections shortly after the 2000 election. Most Americans have no idea about what it takes to administer an election. But in the case of the Florida recount, the entire country learned more about “hanging chads” and “optical scan” voting machines than we wanted to.

The issues in the Florida recount had to do with breakdowns in election mechanics – not fraud. And yet, two years later, in the final stages of the passage of major federal legislation designed to address the main problems the insertion of a minor voter identification requirement – the Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA – nearly derailed the bill.

Meanwhile, Miles Rapoport, the executive director of a new think tank and advocacy organization in New York called Demos, commissioned me to answer a simple question: “Is voter fraud a problem that needs to be addressed?” Miles, who had been a state legislator and secretary of state for the State of Connecticut, was a proponent of same-day registration and other reforms aimed at increasing access to the ballot.

What did your research on voter fraud show?

My first study of voter fraud, “Securing the Vote,” was published by Demos in 2003. I had wanted to call the report “The Myth of Voter Fraud” but Demos felt that this was too provocative a title. Little did they know how persistent the phony problem of voter fraud would become. I found very little evidence of fraud committed by voters, but continued my studies, producing another report in 2007 for a different voting rights advocacy organization, Project Vote.

What did you continue to find?

As my investigations progressed, the research problem shifted from documenting the empirical evidence of voter fraud to understanding the huge gap between the volume of allegations and the belief that voter fraud was a problem, as well as the utter lack of any evidence substantiating these allegations. I ultimately concluded that what explains the gap is politics. My book argues that allegations of voter fraud are used as political weapons by partisans to justify rules that shape the electorate to their advantage.

Why do you think that political groups construct and perpetuate these myths?

I think partisans claim “fraud” for a number of reasons. Sometimes, losers in close elections claim they were defeated because of fraud, perhaps in an effort to influence public opinion in support of a recount or even a new election. And sometimes, broader electoral fraud is involved. I can point to a recent example in a state legislative district in Missouri, where questionable absentee ballots and mistakes by election officials led a court to overturn the results of the election. Fraud committed by election officials, or party or campaign workers, or even candidates, has occurred, and it has affected the outcome of elections, but this problem, like the specific problem of voters committing fraud, is also relatively rare.

What are the real-life implications of these allegations on elections?

The implications of allegations of voter fraud can be seen in the raft of new laws in the states imposing strict photo identification laws to vote, cutbacks in early voting periods, major new burdens on voter registration drive activities, efforts to require proof-of-citizenship to register to vote, and more.

You recently served as an expert witness, providing your expertise on voter fraud, in nine voting rights cases. What were those experiences like?

In each of these cases, I had the opportunity to meet plaintiffs who have been harmed by new voter identification laws. For instance, Ms. Rosanell Eaton, one of the lead plaintiffs in a case challenging various rollbacks in access to the ballot in North Carolina, including the state’s new voter identification law, has had great difficulty obtaining the specialized photo identification the state wanted to mandate. Three years ago, at the age of 92, Ms. Eaton was arrested in North Carolina at a “Moral Mondays” protest against the photo identification law. She was finding it difficult to comply with the law because her name appears differently across the various government-issued identity documents – such as her driver’s license, birth certificate, and voter registration card – required to obtain the new voter identification.

Fighting for voting rights had been an early cause for Ms. Eaton, who was subjected to the discrimination and indignities of Jim Crow laws in the North Carolina in her youth. Having a chance to talk to her, and walking with her into the courtroom, was an honor and a thrill.

What can be done to curb or eliminate the perpetuation of these myths?

I think that more transparency on the part of state election agencies, the routine production of statistics on election crimes, and more public access to information about elections could go a long way toward reassuring the public that fraud committed by voters is exceedingly rare.

Is there anything else that you wish to add?

We need to continue to build on the progress that has been won by those ordinary Americans who have courageously struggled for the right to vote. What’s needed is a single, unified system of election administration in this country that provides for the widest possible access to the ballot. The rules should be simple, clear, and fair, and should not obstruct the full participation of any American, and especially the poor, in their democracy.

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