Exhaustive Database of Voter Fraud Cases Turns Up Scant Evidence That It Happens
BY CORBIN CARSON | NEWS21
PUBLISHED AUG. 12, 2012, 10:41 A.M.
The specter of widespread election fraud has been the professed reason that 37 state legislatures have passed or considered voter identification laws since 2010. Those claiming that illegal votes threaten free and fair elections generally have cited only anecdotes and individual reports of alleged voter fraud.
As part of the News21 national investigation into voting rights in America, a team of reporters took on the unprecedented task of gathering, organizing and analyzing all reported cases of election fraud in the United States since 2000.
How big was this effort?
Over the course of this seven-month investigation, the News21 team sent out more than 2,000 public-records requests and spent nearly $1,800 on fees for records searches and copies of documents. The team also reviewed nearly 5,000 court documents, official records and media reports. The result is the most extensive collection of U.S. election fraud cases ever compiled.
And only 10 such cases over more than a decade were reported to News21 by election officials and prosecutors across the country. During that time, 146 million Americans were registered to vote.
What about the highly publicized list of voter fraud cases gathered by the Republican National Lawyers Association?
News21 began its data-gathering effort in January 2012 by reviewing the more than 300 cases of alleged voter fraud collected by the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA). For years, the RNLA has been urging strict voter-identification laws on the grounds of massive amounts of voter fraud, and in 2011 the organization released a survey of voter fraud cases in America. However, the News21 analysis showed that the RNLA cases, now totaling about 375 cases, consisted mainly of newspaper articles about a range of election issues, with little supporting evidence of actual in-person voter fraud.
Is this database complete?
No. Despite the huge News21 public-records request effort, the team received no useful responses from several states — for instance, the lone cases in the database from Massachusetts, Oklahoma , South Carolina and South Dakota all came from the RNLA survey. Even in states where some local jurisdictions responded, others didn’t. In addition, it is possible that some jurisdictions which did respond failed to include some cases. Another problem is that some responses News21 received were missing important details about each case — from whether the person was convicted or charged to the circumstances of the alleged fraud to the names of those involved. Still, with those caveats, News21 is confident this database is substantially complete and is the largest such collection of election fraud cases gathered by anyone in the United States.
What if errors or omissions are discovered in the database?
News21 is committed to correcting errors or adding details about cases when we learn of them. Click here to notify News21 about errors or missing cases of which you are aware. Please include details that can be verified by News21 — names, case numbers, jurisdiction, results, etc. Vague allegations — “I heard that people were being paid to vote for Candidate X in the last election” — can’t be verified unless an official authority has investigated and prosecuted or dismissed the case.
Aren’t public officials required to respond to public-records requests?
You would think so, but one of the lessons News21 learned from this effort is the substantial differences in public-records requirements and responsiveness across the 50 states. Even within a state, where all public officials presumably are operating under the same laws and rules, there often was wide variation in compliance. One county might respond quickly with a list of cases while the next would insist that its public records laws don’t require officials to respond at all.
How was the News21 public-records effort conducted?
In early May, the News21 team sent public-records requests to each of the 50 departments of elections or secretaries of state across the nation. The team also sent similar requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act to the District of Columbia Board of Elections, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. The request was simple: Please send information about any cases since 2000 involving election fraud, including the name of accused, the charges they are accused of and the disposition of the case.
The first hurdle was that every state runs elections in its own fashion, and many states control the election process through different agencies. After extensive follow-up telephone calls and messages, the News21 team began to receive responses. The most common response was a message saying that the election offices don’t track fraud and directing the request to the state attorney general’s office.
In early June, the News21 team sent requests to all 50 state attorneys general. Many of them in turn responded that they don’t track cases of election fraud and that the requests should go to every county district attorney in the state.
There are 3,145 counties in America. News21 emailed, faxed or phoned every county district attorney office in every state that indicated that was necessary, a total of more than 1,000 such contacts. In many cases, offices were contacted more than once in order to get questions answered and details filled in.
How responsive were officials to the public-records requests?
Some states and local jurisdictions responded quickly and efficiently. For instance, the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission sent News21 a CD-ROM containing more than 1,200 files, representing every case the commission had heard since 2000. Most involved technical violations of various laws covering campaign finance reports and advertising, but the comprehensiveness of the response was remarkable and it logged more than 200 election violations.
Hundreds of officials responded with short notes — some handwritten, even coffee-stained — saying they had had no cases of fraud.
When jurisdictions did acknowledge cases of election fraud, the responses came with a level of detail that ranged from complete to deficient. Some responded only with summary data counting the number of cases but without any useful detail. Other jurisdictions sent pages of names but without any charges or results. Some states — California for example — cited laws that made it illegal for prosecutors to give the name of somebody who had been charged but not convicted of a crime.
For nearly all the data News21 received, there would be some vital piece of information that had been requested specifically but that was missing. News21 reporters then called back, seeking more detail as well as searching databases such as Google News and Lexis/Nexis for articles about the cases. Despite this effort, there are cases in the database that contain so little detail that they cannot be properly categorized as one kind of fraud or another.
What public-records obstacles were encountered?
Some jurisdictions insisted that their computer systems lacked the capability to search for election fraud cases. They suggested that if News21 would forward the names of the people in the cases of interest, they would find the information; the names, of course, were what News21 was seeking.
Dozens of jurisdictions flatly refused the requests, using variations of the disclaimer that their public-records law does not require them to create a document that does not exist, therefore the request is denied. News21 responded to these denials by arguing that the team was not asking that a new record be created, but rather for copies of existing records of election fraud prosecutions. Even so, some jurisdictions continued to resist giving responsive replies.
Another problem was a pass-the-buck response. The secretary of state or department of elections would refer News21 to the attorney general, who would refer the team to the county district attorneys, who would then refer back to the secretary of state or department of elections. It was similar at the federal level. The Department of Justice responded to a query by pointing News21 to the 93 U.S. Attorney's offices around the country; many of those offices, in turn, referred News21 back to the department.
In some cases, there even was organized resistance to answering the News21 requests. When North Carolina sent a summary without details, News21 queried the 44 district attorneys across the state and got a detailed response from one of them. But almost immediately, an official with the Administrative Office of the Courts intervened and told the others not to respond to the News21 request. Another example was the director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, who refused to give News21 the email addresses of those offices, and then wrote an angry email when a News21 reporter used another source to get that contact information.
Was there any cost to seeking the public records?
That depends on the jurisdiction. Many places responded without charge. Others insisted on payment in advance of fees that ranged from modest — $10 for copying fees — to the $60,000 that officials in an Idaho county said would be necessary to write a computer program to search their records. (The county then acknowledged that it was unlikely there were any such cases to be found.) News21 paid a total of nearly $1,800 to various jurisdictions, in amounts ranging up to the $800 for programming a search of Iowa’s database. (Iowa added that answering public-records requests was the “lowest priority” for the state.)
Generally, there was little bang for the bucks spent on those statewide public-records searches. The $320 paid to Virginia generated a listing of 77 cases, more than half of which were separate charges against one person. Pennsylvania got $200 for a search that produced seven cases.
How did News21 organize the responses received?
A master spreadsheet was created using Google Documents, which allowed team members to enter new cases as the information came in. A spreadsheet is just a table of columns and rows, where the columns are the variables and the rows are the individual cases. In the case of the News21 fraud database, the key variables were name of accused; state; year; type of accused (individual voter, campaign official, third party, etc.); category of accusation (in-person voter impersonation, absentee-ballot fraud, registration fraud, double voting, intimidation, etc.); status of the case (convicted, pleaded guilty, found not guilty, dismissed, etc.); and a short synopsis of the case with whatever details had been gathered.
A second spreadsheet was used to track when News21 sent public-records requests to each federal, state or local jurisdiction, the response and the follow-up.
In addition, News21 set up a Document Cloud site where readers can see all the documents that were gathered during the course of the investigation. Document Cloud is a Web service used by more than 300 journalism organizations to index, organize, annotate and share with the public the documents they gather for investigative stories. The News21 documents can be accessed here.
How does News21 define the different types of election fraud?
Inspiration for the News21 database of federal state and local election fraud came from studying earlier efforts by Rutgers University Professor Lorraine Minnite, who built a smaller database of federal cases for her 2010 book “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” and the Brennan Center for Justice, which analyzed a collection of election cases for its 2007 report “The Truth About Voter Fraud.”
A key distinction is between voter fraud and election fraud. News21 started with the definitions offered by Minnite in her book: “Voter fraud is the intentional deceitful corruption of the election process by voters. All other forms of corruption of the electoral process and corruption committed by elected or election officials, candidates, party organizations, advocacy groups or campaign workers falls under the wider definition of election fraud.”
From there, the subcategories in the News21 database grew to include a dozen kinds of illegal election behavior by any of four kinds of participants in elections – voters, election officials, campaign officials or third parties. See this table for details on how these were defined. The News21 definitions don’t always agree with definitions used by different jurisdictions. For instance, some places call it “voter impersonation” when someone is accused of sending in the absentee ballot of another person; under the News21 definition, that would be “absentee ballot fraud.”
Because so much rhetoric focused on voter ID has proclaimed it the cure for perceived election fraud, News21 paid special attention to verifying any cases that conceivably could have been stopped by strict requirements that would prove a voter’s identity. Such cases would involve someone who goes to a polling place on Election Day and impersonates a registered voter. That is different from, for instance, cases of registering to vote using false ID or filling in an absentee ballot for someone else.
The News21 database includes as many cases as could be found that had reached some level of official action: That is, someone was charged, an investigation was opened, a specific accusation was made against a named person.
Along with official records, News21 reporters looked for news media accounts of such accusations, and then made all efforts to contact elections officials to find out what happened in those cases. In some cases, such as 71 of those from the RNLA survey, no official record could be found beyond a media report; these still were included in the database.
The News21 Election Fraud effort was organized and led by Corbin Carson, who designed the database and kept track of the public-records requests and responses. Sarah Jane Capper and Alex Remington led the research teams, which included Kassondra Cloos, Andrea Rumbaugh, Natasha Khan, Lindsey Ruta, Jeremy Knop and Ethan Magoc. The entire News21 team assisted in entering and fact-checking massive amounts of data.