Expert Commentary

Voter fraud, perceptions and political spin: Research roundup

Claims of election fraud were a prominent feature in the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump. He repeatedly warned that the election would be “stolen” from him. We look at the research and find fraud is more often spin than fact.

Polling station door

Claims of election fraud were a prominent feature in the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump. He repeatedly warned that the election would be “stolen” from him — especially in black, urban neighborhoods where he had less support. “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day,” he tweeted on October 17. Even after his win, Trump claimed that he lost the popular vote due to 3 million or more fake votes.

Fears about electoral fraud resonate broadly. A September 2016 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of registered voters believe it happens “often.” These voters are often divided along party lines. Among Trump supporters, that number rose to 69 percent; it was 28 percent among supporters of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. An August 2016 Gallup poll found a similar split. Overall, faith in fair elections appears to be slipping: Since 2004, expectations that presidential elections will be tallied accurately have dropped from about 70 percent to 63 percent, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll.

But how common is electoral fraud in the United States? And could misconduct at the polls swing a result?

Data on the rare cases of fraud

Multiple studies using different methodologies have found voter fraud occurs so rarely that it could not have an impact on results. In 2016, Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt wrote in the Washington Post that he had found 31 credible allegations of fraud among some 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014 (and he expected some of those 31 to be debunked).

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, in a September 2014 report to Congress, noted that without a central data source for fraud reporting, it cannot make valid conclusions about the frequency of fraud. It did add, though, that the Department of Justice had noted “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation […] anywhere in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.”

Looking at returns from the 2012 general election, John Ahlquist and colleagues, writing in the Election Law Journal, found no evidence of fraudulent vote casting or vote buying.

Voter ID Laws

Those who fear fraud often propose voter-identification requirements as a solution. Over 30 states have some sort of voter-identification law, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. These laws require registered voters to provide identification (or in some cases merely allow the poll worker to ask for ID, even if it is not required) in order to receive a ballot on Election Day. The 2016 Gallup poll mentioned above found that 95 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats favor voter-ID requirements. A 2012 Pew poll found similar results.

But scholars say such laws target minorities (who often vote Democrat) because “minorities are less likely than whites to have acceptable identification,” according to a 2015 review in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have found that voter ID laws have a negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, African Americans and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections, skewing elections toward whites and Republicans.

Indeed, in July 2016 a federal judge squashed a North Carolina voter-ID law introduced by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The judge said the law targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” in an effort to discourage their turnout at the polls. The law was written in 2013 after the Supreme Court threw out a provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had given federal authorities the right to oversee changes in election protocol in counties with a history of racial discrimination.

Fraud as partisan spin

Belief in electoral fraud is strongly associated with membership in the Republican Party.

Margaret Groarke of Manhattan College argues in Political Science Quarterly that concerns about voter fraud are “a partisan strategy to constrict the electorate,” specifically to stop minorities from voting. She chronicles how fear of fraud has derailed legislative efforts across decades to make registration easier for eligible Americans, with Republican lawmakers largely against and Democrats largely for.

Brian Fogarty of the University of Glasgow and colleagues argue that calls for voter-ID laws — generally from Republican voters and legislators — are part of a push by conservative party operatives to stoke perceptions of fraud, placing fraud on the political agenda to “motivate their voting base ahead of the election.”

Evidence is available to support that claim. “Behind closed doors, some Republicans freely admit that stoking false fears of electoral fraud is part of their political strategy,” The New York Times reported in September 2016. “In a recently disclosed email from 2011, a Republican lobbyist in Wisconsin wrote to colleagues about a very close election for a seat on the State Supreme Court. ‘Do we need to start messaging “widespread reports of election fraud” so we are positively set up for the recount regardless of the final number?’ he wrote. ‘I obviously think we should.’”

Other resources

Journalist’s Resource has profiled a number of relevant studies, including work on the factors impacting minority voter turnout, voter-ID laws, the rights of voters and on electoral integrity around the world.

At New York University, the Brennan Center for Justice has a list of recent scholarship on voter ID laws as well as other resources helpful for journalists writing about voting rights or the risk of fraud.

The News 21 program at Arizona State University keeps a database of alleged instances of voter fraud. It tallied 2,068 cases of alleged election fraud between 2000 and 2012. Of those, only 10 could have been prevented with voter-ID legislation.

For a more global perspective, there is The Electoral Integrity Project, run out of the University of Sydney and Harvard.



“Identifying Election Fraud Using Orphan and Low Propensity Voters”
Christensen, Ray; Schultz Thomas J. American Politics Research, 2014. doi:10.1177/1532673X13498411.

Abstract: “Although voter ID laws have become a hot topic of political debate, existing scholarship has failed to produce conclusive evidence concerning the existence or frequency of electoral fraud, especially the type of fraud that would be prevented by photo identification laws and signature verification protocols for voting by mail. We propose a new method of measuring election fraud, especially identity fraud, that is superior to previous measurement efforts because it measures actual instances of fraud rather than waiting for conclusive proof of fraud produced in a criminal prosecution. We test our method in multiple jurisdictions, including two known cases of electoral fraud, and we find no additional cases of fraud. We speculate that public access to voting and registration records play an important role in preventing this type of election fraud, suggesting that these practices are perhaps more important than voter ID laws in preventing election fraud.”


“They Just Do Not Vote Like They Used To: A Methodology to Empirically Assess Election Fraud”
Hood, M.V.; Gillespie, William. Social Science Quarterly, 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00837.

Abstract: “Objectives. In contemporary U.S. elections there is no shortage of allegations concerning election fraud. These claims are, however, based in large part on anecdotal evidence, unsubstantiated assertions, or the study of reported complaints. The absence of a general methodology to actively search for evidence of election fraud has resulted in policy arguments devoid of empirical data and systematic analyses. Methods. In this article, we present a general methodology to study contemporary election fraud based on the Knowledge Discovery in Databases (KDD) process. We then apply this approach to a case study of a particular type of fraud. Results. After examining approximately 2.1 million votes cast during the 2006 general election in Georgia, we find no evidence that election fraud was committed under the auspices of deceased registrants. Conclusion. In this article, we have introduced a general methodology for the scientific study of election fraud. We urge social scientists to make use of such a framework to investigate the prevalence of different types of fraud across varying election cycles and jurisdictions.”


“Barriers to the Ballot Box: Implicit Bias and Voting Rights in the 21st Century”
Gordon, Arusha; Rosenberg, Ezra. Michigan Journal of Race and Law, 2015. ISSN: 1095-2721.

Abstract: “While much has been written regarding unconscious or “implicit bias” in other areas of law, there is a scarcity of scholarship examining how implicit bias impacts voting rights and how advocates can move courts to recognize evidence of implicit bias within the context of a voting rights claim. This article aims to address that scarcity. After reviewing research on implicit bias, this article examines how implicit bias might impact different stages of the electoral process. It then argues that “results test” claims under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) present an opportunity for plaintiffs to introduce evidence regarding implicit bias in the electoral process. In addition, this article explores policy solutions to reduce the impact of implicit bias in elections.”


“Fraudulent Votes, Voter Identification, and the 2012 US General Election”
Ahlquist, John S.; Mayer, Kenneth R.; Jackman, Simon. Election Law Journal (forthcoming).

Abstract: “State legislatures around the United States have entertained–and passed–laws requiring voters to present various forms of state-issued identification in order to cast ballots. Proponents of such laws argue that they protect the integrity of the electoral process, sometimes claiming that fraudulent voting is widespread. Opponents argue that widespread or systematic electoral fraud is virtually non-existent; whatever does exist is minor, insufficient to swing an election, and not worth imposing additional burdens on voters to address. They claim that voter ID laws are little more than thinly veiled attempts to disenfranchise the poor, elderly, and racial and ethnic minorities. Surprisingly no one has undertaken to actually measure the incidence of voter fraud in the United States using rigorous survey methodologies. This paper reports the results of a YouGov/Polimetrix survey list experiment fielded immediately after the 2012 US general election designed to measure the prevalence of two specific types of voter fraud: repeat/fraudulent ballot casting and vote buying. We find no evidence of fraudulent vote casting or vote buying, even in the states most contested in the presidential campaign. We also find that states with strict voter ID laws are no different from others in the (non) existence of fraudulent voting. Based on this evidence, strict voter ID requirements address a problem that did not exist in the 2012 US election.


“Revisiting Public Opinion on Voter Identification and Voter Fraud in an Era of Increasing Partisan Polarization”
Stewart, Charles; Ansolabehere, Stephen; Persily, Nathaniel. Stanford Law Review, 2016.

Abstract: “This article updates previous findings concerning the relationship between voter identification laws and perceptions of voter fraud. Courts have established that voter identification laws can be justified as measures that safeguard “voter confidence.” We demonstrate once again, but with the benefit of new survey data, that people who live in states with voter identification laws do not have greater confidence in elections or perceive lower rates of voter impersonation fraud. Since we last published on the subject, however, we notice an increase in the partisan structure of public opinion on voter identification and voter fraud. As the issue has become more salient and partisan in tone, partisan identity has become a more powerful variable in predicting both support for voter identification laws and beliefs in the prevalence of voter fraud. We note, however, that strong majorities continue to support such laws, even though a large share of the population remains unaware of the existence of voter identification requirements.”


“The Media, Voter Fraud, and the 2012 Elections”
Fogarty, Brian; Kimball, David; Kosnik, Lea-Rachel. University of Missouri-St Louis Department of Economics Working Papers, 2016.

Abstract: “Debate over the existence and impact of voter fraud continues unabated in American politics. Despite minimal evidence of fraud cases and non-existent effects on election outcomes, Americans continue to believe voter fraud is rampant. In this paper, we examine a potential source of this disconnect – the U.S. news media. How the media cover voter fraud likely affects citizens’ beliefs and opinions on the subject. However, little research exists exploring voter fraud coverage. In this paper, we examine the patterns and themes of voter fraud coverage in local newspapers for each of the 50 states during the 2012 elections. Amongst the results, we show that ‘voter photo identification’ was a dominant topic in coverage. Further, presidential campaign spending and states that recently passed restrictive voting laws affected the language and which topics related to voter fraud received the most attention. Finally, we find that the number of fraud cases was unrelated to voter fraud news coverage. From an agenda setting standpoint, our results suggest Republicans may have been successful in making voter identification a salient issue during the 2012 elections.”


“News Attention to Voter Fraud in the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Elections”
Fogarty, Brian J.; et al. Research and Politics, 2015. doi: 10.1177/2053168015587156.

Abstract: “The nature and frequency of voter fraud figures prominently in many ongoing policy debates about election laws in the United States. Policymakers frequently cite allegations of voter fraud reported in the press during these debates. While recent studies find that voter fraud is a rare event, a substantial segment of the public believes that voter fraud is a rampant problem in the United States. It stands to reason that public beliefs are shaped by news coverage of voter fraud. However, there is very little extant academic research on how the news media, at any level, covers allegations or documented cases of voter fraud. This paper examines local newspaper attention to voter fraud in each of the 50 states during the 2008 and 2012 US elections. The results show that local coverage of voter fraud during the 2012 elections was greatest in presidential swing states and states that passed restrictive voting laws prior to the 2012 election. No evidence that newspaper attention is related to the rate of actual voter fraud cases in each state was found. The findings are consistent with other studies indicating that parties and campaigns sought to place voter fraud on the political agenda in strategically important states to motivate their voting base ahead of the election.”


Keywords: electoral fraud, voter fraud, voter ID laws, stollen election, Donald J. Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton, disenfranchised voters, African-American voters, Hispanic voters

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