By Michael Wines
After all the allegations of rampant voter fraud and claims that millions had voted illegally, the people who supervised the general election last month in states across the nation have been adding up how many credible reports of fraud they actually received.
The overwhelming consensus: next to none.
In an election in which more than 137.7 million Americans cast ballots, elections officials and those from law enforcement in 26 states and the District of Columbia – Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning and in between – said that they knew of no credible allegations of fraudulent voting. Officials in an additional eight states said they knew of only one allegation.
A few states reported somewhat larger numbers of fraud claims that were under review. Tennessee counted 40 credible allegations out of some 4.3 million primary and general election votes. In Georgia, where more than 4.1 million ballots were cast, officials said they had opened 25 inquiries into “suspicious voting or election-related activity.”
But inquiries to all 50 states (every one but Kansas responded), found no states that reported indications of widespread fraud. And while additional allegations could surface as states wind up postelection reviews, their conclusions are unlikely to change significantly.
The findings unambiguously debunk repeated statements by President-elect Donald J. Trump that millions of illegal voters backed his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. They also refute warnings by Republican governors in Maine and North Carolina that election results could not be trusted.
And they underscore what researchers and scholars have said for years: The issue of fraud by voters casting ballots illegally is a minuscule problem, but a potent political weapon.
“The old notion that somehow there are all these impostors out there, people not eligible to vote that are voting – it’s a lie,” said Thomas E. Mann, a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “But it’s what’s being used in the states now to impose increased qualifications and restrictions on voting.”
In a year that unfolded amid wild fraud claims, the reports from election officials were strikingly humdrum.
“Nothing at all, really,” said Jim Tenuto, assistant executive director of the Illinois Board of Elections. “We only had one,” said Laura Strimple, Nebraska’s assistant secretary of state. “It hasn’t been confirmed.”
“We haven’t received any complaints to our office or any word of suspicious activity, and we would definitely hear it,” said Matt Roberts, spokesman for Arizona’s secretary of state.
Some state officials qualified their estimates, saying they had not yet reviewed all questionable ballots, or that voter fraud was a local matter that was usually – but not always – reported to them. Ohio officials declined to offer totals, saying they were still assessing complaints; Pennsylvania and Mississippi officials said they did not track fraud cases.
Many Republicans insist significant problems persist, and that much fraud goes undetected. The conservative Heritage Foundation has published online what it calls an incomplete list of voter fraud and other election law violations dating from 1982, roughly 450 cases involving voters and public officials. Properly written, laws requiring voters to display IDs “could increase the fairness of the election process for everyone, regardless of party,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative.
Voting rights advocates note that the current system caught those violations – and that the numbers, less than one per state per year – constitute a tiny sliver of the millions of votes cast in any election cycle.
No one doubts that election fraud has occurred and needs to be monitored. Election outcomes have been changed by officials who altered vote tallies, and in theory hackers could pick winners by playing havoc with voter rolls, voting machines or electronic reporting networks. But voter fraud, in which someone deliberately casts an invalid ballot or a ballot under someone else’s name, is exceedingly rare.
Its prevalence is at the heart of the debate on restrictions such as voter ID. Critics say that cracking down on abuses that barely exist can cost hundreds of thousands of people or more – often the poor and minorities – their ability to vote.
For example, a federal court in 2014 found that in Wisconsin, an estimated 300,000 voters who had registered did not have any of the required IDs.
Federal courts have altered or nullified the strictest voter ID laws, saying they suppress turnout among minorities, who are most likely to lack a required ID.
This year has set new benchmarks for accusations about tainted elections.
In Maine, Gov. Paul R. LePage, a Republican, this month certified state elections, in which Clinton won, but refused to call the vote count accurate. (Maine’s secretary of state says no voter fraud was detected.)
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican, alleged that Democratic-driven fraud in more than half the state’s 100 counties contributed to his re-election defeat by the state attorney general, Roy Cooper. McCrory conceded Dec. 6. But for three weeks before that, he and others repeatedly accused Democrats of concocting illegal absentee ballots and relying on votes by criminals, the dead and two-time voters.
The accusations proved largely spurious. Of more than 4.7 million ballots cast, election officials uncovered 25 apparently invalid votes by felons; whether they knew they were ineligible to vote is unclear. State and county elections boards, all led by Republican majorities, threw out most of the remaining challenges. So-called dead voters actually had died after casting early votes; two-time voters turned out to be people with similar or identical names.
Trump falsely asserted on Twitter that he would have won the popular vote – Clinton received about 2.8 million more votes – “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
But even Republican leaders who once disavowed Trump’s fraud remarks have fallen silent.
As for noncitizens casting invalid ballots, Trump was right: It did happen. Not millions of times, but at least once. Tennessee is still investigating one allegation of noncitizen voting. And in Oregon, a U.S. citizen registered her noncitizen husband to vote, which he did – until he discovered that it was illegal. The man reported his mistake to county election officials, the secretary of state’s office said.
He asked that his ballot not be counted.