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Can a presidential election really be rigged?
Donald Trump‘s claims that the U.S. presidential election is “rigged” has riled up internet conspiracy theorists and drawn backlash from public officials. And it’s only getting more intense as we approach Election Day.
The presidential candidate has called for “vigilante” poll watchers to monitor voting sites for any suspicious activity while also urging his supporters to vote twice in the event their mail-in ballot won’t be counted. Concern that Trump’s rhetoric could lead to voter intimidation has even prompted the DNC to take legal action against Trump.
A lot of call-ins about vote flipping at the voting booths in Texas. People are not happy. BIG lines. What is going on?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2016
Trump’s actions have left many wondering: What exactly is voter fraud—and just how likely it is to occur?
The Brennan Center for Justice offers a pretty straightforward definition of voter fraud, describing it as “when individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote, in an effort to defraud the election system.” The Florida Division of Elections goes a bit further and defines voter fraud as any “intentional misrepresentation, trickery, deceit, or deception, arising out of or in connection with voter registration or voting.”
The issue of illegal voting gained new ground in the aftermath of the 2000 election and the Florida recount. Thousands of ex-felons were purged from Florida’s voter rolls shortly before Election Day in 2000. When the NAACP sued the state of Florida for violating voting rights laws, it was discovered that 12,000 voters—44 percent of whom were African-American—had been wrongfully turned away at the polls. As the Nation reported, that was 22 times George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the state of Florida.
Studies of voter fraud point to the issue being far less common than is mythologized by Trump and Republicans before him. One review of 12 years of voter fraud allegations found only 10 cases of confirmed fraud. Another study found 31 cases of voter impersonation out of the billion votes cast in all of the general and primary elections that occurred from 2000 to 2014.
Even still, the internet is teeming with videos with titles like “Hillary Clinton Supporters Commit Voter Fraud in Nevada” or “HIDDEN CAM: NYC Democratic Election Commissioner, ‘They Bus People Around to Vote.'” Trump’s supporters are tweeting such videos in droves.
Here are some of the most common vote fraud myths that have gained traction on the internet in recent weeks.
1) 1.8 million dead people are registered as voters
Both on the campaign trail and the debate stage, Trump has cited a 2012 Pew report that claims 1.8 million dead people are registered as voters.
“If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote — millions, this isn’t coming from me — this is coming from Pew report and other places — millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote,” said Trump on the night of the third presidential debate.
While Trump is correct that there are 1.8 million dead people are registered as voters, he leaves out one critical fact: None of them actually voted.
In fact, David Becker, the author of the 2012 Pew study favored by Trump, went on a tweetstorm in order to debunk Trump’s claims.
The study found no evidence of voter fraud, either due to out-of-date records or deceased individuals still on the rolls. -3
— David Becker (@beckerdavidj) October 20, 2016
Voter fraud on the behalf of dead people does happen—just not at the scale alleged by Trump. Reports have emerged of ballots being cast by dead people in Colorado and by a student who registered 20 dead people to vote in Virginia .
2) Democrats illegally bus voters into swing states
The mythical bus full of out-of-state voters—usually immigrants or ex-felons or young people—appears to be an Election Day myth, according to a 2012 New York Times report. This myth gained traction due to a hidden camera film video by James O’Keefe hidden camera video of Scott Foval, who serves as the regional political coordinator for liberal think tank People for the American Way.
Foval said he used to take part in operations by Democrats to bus people to vote in Iowa.
“It’s a very easy thing for the Republicans to say, ‘Well, they’re busing people in [to vote],'” Foval said. “Well, you know what? We’ve been busing people in to deal with you f***ing [people] for 50 years, and we’re not going to stop now. We’re just going to find a different way to do it.”
Immigration reform activist Caesar Vargas, who also appears in the video, accused O’Keefe in a Facebook post of editing the video to distort the story. (O’Keefe’s editing techniques and “hidden-camera” style of filmmaking has been accused of being misleading and ethically questionable in the past as well.) The video depicts a conversation between Vargas and a Project Veritas operative. The operative proposes a plan that involves busing in voters from other states.
Vargas says in the video, “This is not going to happen this election,” in response to the plan. But he then adds, “Can we make something special during midterm elections in 2017?” The video implies that statement refers to busing in voters. However, it’s unclear from the video what exactly Vargas means by “something special.”
3) Undocumented immigrants vote
The idea of hordes of non-citizens risking deportation to influence the results of a U.S. election doesn’t sound far-fetched to many Americans. A total of 60 percent of Republicans believes that undocumented immigrants vote, according to an October poll by the Washington Post.
An investigation into cases of vote fraud in Maricopa County, Arizona, however, by the Arizona Republic found that only two undocumented immigrants were charged with voter fraud between the years 2005 and 2013.
4) Your mail-in ballot won’t be counted
Trump keeps telling CO voters the ballots they mail in might not be properly counted. He’s apparently not worried this will demoralize them?
— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) October 30, 2016
“I don’t love the concept of ballots,” Trump tells crowd in Golden, Colo.
— Jeremy W. Peters (@jwpetersNYT) October 29, 2016
Trump has warned rallies in Colorado that not all their mail-in ballots may be counted and has instructed them to go pick-up a new ballot in-person. The Republican presidential candidate told Colorado crowds that he “didn’t love the concept of ballots,” perhaps meaning the state’s vote-by-mail system. Roughly 95 percent of Coloradans cast their ballots by mail in 2014, after the state switched to a system where all registered voters were automatically mailed ballots.
Sopan Deb of CBS News tweeted a transcript of Trump’s remarks on Sunday at a rally in Greeley, Colorado.
Colorado election officials have pushed back against Trump’s claim. Ballots were mailed out to registered Colorado voters on Oct. 17, and nearly 700,000 ballots have already been counted as of Friday, the Denver Business Journal reports.
Skepticism over mail-in ballots being counted has grown over the years. While your mail-in-ballot can get rejected, NPR found that it is often due to a series of common mistakes made by the voters themselves. Errors like forgetting to sign the ballot envelope, mailing in the ballot too late, or mailing in a ballot after already voting in-person will lead to election officials tossing the vote.
But what about states where the majority of the population vote in-person? Are all mail-in ballots counted, even if their results won’t sway the election? The Maryland Board of Elections set the record straight:
“All votes cast during early voting are counted. All absentee ballots submitted on time with the required signature are counted even if they will not change the outcome of an election. Votes cast during early voting and by absentee ballot count just like votes cast on election day.”
Hundreds of thousands of provisional and mail-in ballots were left uncounted after Clinton was declared the winner of the California primary this summer. But as of July 6, that number has gone down to zero in every county, according to the California Secretary of State’s report of unprocessed ballots.
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.