Voter Fraud A Hot-Button Issue, But Not A Widespread Problem
October 02, 2012

PHOENIX -- The United States has a long and checkered history when it comes to the ballot box. In the last several years, the issue of voter fraud has become a rallying cry in local, state, and national elections.

Every election season is full of robocalls from campaigns eager to get out the vote. A recent one out of Arizona began, "11 years ago today, we as Americans were united by the tragic events of 9/11."

The recording went on to invite the listener to attend a local party meeting to memorialize the 9/11 attacks, then continued, "We invite you to learn about how we can restore our republic, by helping prevent voter fraud..."

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett speaks at a press conference in Phoenix on National Voter Registration Day.

The candidate who paid for the call is Ray Speakman, running as a Republican for Arizona's state house. He said voter fraud is a bipartisan issue.

"If fraud is taking place, the elections really can't speak to the voice of the people," Speakman said. "That is our voice, and if there's voter fraud taking place, it hurts everybody."

It's hard to argue that fraudulent voting would harm the sanctity of elections. But is voter fraud actually happening?

"I don't think it's a statistically large percentage problem in Arizona, but any amount of voter fraud is too much," said Ken Bennett, Arizona's Secretary of State.

Bennett hasn't seen many cases since he took office in 2009. But Arizona cross-checks its ballots with 15 other states to make sure nobody votes in two places. Recently, Bennett held a press conference and announced nine alleged new cases of double voting in 2008.

"If it's a small amount, then maybe we're succeeding at preventing it from becoming a large amount," Bennett said.

"Voter fraud exists. It's not a unicorn, but it's only slightly less rare than unicorns, basically," said Steve Doig, who teaches at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism. He works on a project called News21, whose student journalists compiled a database of voter fraud cases in the U.S. over the last 12 years.

Photo by Nick Blumberg
Steve Doig is the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School.

In that time, they found a little more than 2,000 alleged cases of fraud -- just a handful in Arizona -- and only 10 instances nationwide of voter impersonation, which voter ID laws try to prevent. Despite the scarcity of fraud, 33 states have passed some kind of voter ID law, including Arizona. Doig said a lot of those laws come out of Republican legislatures, "...even in the face of arguments that there’s hasn’t been a problem."

"Pennsylvania had a fascinating court case where they were arguing about it and they actually had to stipulate at the beginning of it that, in fact, there hadn't been a single case that voter ID would stop, and basically, still went ahead with it anyway," Doig said.

Pennsylvania's voter ID law, the subject of an ongoing legal battle, is considered among the strictest in the nation. And it got some negative buzz after a speech this summer by state representative Mike Turzai.

"Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania? Done."

Statements like this have people worried that voter fraud prevention isn't aimed at criminals, but at disenfranchising minority, elderly, and low-income voters more likely to vote for a Democrat. Organizations like the ACLU, the Advancement Project, and the Brennan Center are sounding the alarm.

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Vote Fraud Watchers Aim For 5,000 Observers At Arizona Polls

In Arizona, a state that's been watched by the Justice Department for decades because of a history of discriminating against minority voters, groups are prepping an army of volunteers for an election that draws ever closer. For the second part of our look at voter fraud prevention, we'll profile a poll watching organization in Arizona with sister groups across the country.