Most of us take for granted that adults regardless of age, sex or race have the right to vote. The fact is that for nearly two centuries, or 79% of American history, women and people of color lobbied, protested, and died to win suffrage and exercise it. This era drew to a close in 1971 with the passage of the 26th Amendment giving 18- to 20-year-olds the right to vote.
A golden age followed in which voters not only reflected our nation’s diversity but generally exercised their rights freely and easily. Well-managed elections resulted in smooth transitions of power because the outcomes were universally accepted, making American voting the gold standard that emerging democracies emulated.
With a notable exception, both parties along with federal and state governments worked together to encourage voting. Advancing technology expanded convenience and voter options. When mail-in voting first appeared, the national Republican Party promoted it aggressively to gain an advantage over the Democrats, who soon embraced it.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination, effectively increasing minority voting for the next fifty years. With its passage, white Southern Democrats, who had supported a century of discrimination, migrated to the Republican Party bringing ongoing efforts at Black voter suppression with them. Phrases were developed that superficially appeared compelling but were actually dog whistles for restricting minority voting.
One such concept was voter fraud. Republicans in some areas of the South stationed off-duty law enforcement officers at election locations to question and challenge people of color about proper registration. Responding to complaints, federal courts issued orders starting in 1982 that prevented the national party from intimidating minority voters at the polls. A federal court lifted this order in 2018.
Does voter fraud exist? Here are a few of the many studies that explored the question.
Reviewing in-person voting between 2000-14, Loyola University Law School identified 31 instances of fraud out of 1 billion ballots, constituting .000000031% (31 10 millionth of 1 percent) of votes cast. The report concluded that voter fraud at the polls is essentially non-existent.
Oregon is one of six states that currently conduct their elections almost entirely by mail. The state examines the ballots for fraud immediately after an election. Out of more than 100 million ballots cast, Oregon found 12 cases of fraud, a rate of .000012% of votes.
A database at the conservative Heritage Foundation lists 488 cases of fraud over the past decade, or about 49 per year (an average of one per state).
Richard Hansen, professor of elections law at UC-Irvine, explored voter data between 1980 and 2016 to determine if any election result turned on voter fraud. He found none and concluded that voter fraud overturning elections is a myth.
Believing he won the popular vote in 2016, President Trump appointed a commission chaired by Vice-President Pence to investigate voter fraud. Despite an extensive budget and staff, the bi-partisan group found no substantial evidence of it. The committee disbanded and the Department of Homeland Security was charged with continuing its work. Silence has followed.
Fraud is rare because of the safeguards states have developed. Take for example Washington state where most citizens vote by mail. Registrants must provide information and a signature so that the state can ensure they are eligible to vote and doing so in the right place. Each mail-in ballot has an individualized bar code to track its location to and from the voter, ensuring that it gets counted. Further, they must be signed so that the county clerk’s staff can compare signatures with those on the registration cards.
The system of bar codes and signatures makes it virtually impossible to cheat on a single ballot let alone on a mass scale. Those with questionable signatures or missed deadlines are rejected. Camaras continuously film the process of collecting and counting the ballots at every locale; anyone can tune in to watch at any time.
Like all states, Washington conducts a post-election review to ensure accuracy. The state flagged 74 votes in 2016 for further investigation, but most involved errors in the data base. Out of millions of ballots cast, only 10 remained suspicious; prosecutors later determined none were intentional or linked.
When fraud occurs, the safeguards catch it. Following the 2018 election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, the state discovered fraudulent use of mail-in ballots, investigated, refused to certify the election results, and called for a new election. Five persons were charged with felonies. The same occurred in the aftermath of a recent City Council election in Patterson, New Jersey.
Voter fraud is isolated, extremely rare, gets exposed, and does not overturn elections. The only notable fraud has been perpetrated by those who use it as an excuse to suppress voters’ rights. Regardless, this issue has gained prominence over the past decade, helping to bring an end to the golden age of voting.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series of columns by Massie about voting before Election Day on Nov. 3. His next column: Voter suppression returns.