Some claim that Hillary Clinton’s national vote in the 2016 election was a result of “rampant voter fraud.” Others claim that there was no fraud. These conflicting claims have generated personal attacks by both sides. How is the public to assess these conflicting claims?
The absolutely critical distinction is between the persons listed as registered voters and those persons who actually voted. Every list of registered voters in the nation has at one time or another contained the names of persons ineligible to vote. Why?
A person may be listed among registered voters in two different jurisdictions or in a jurisdiction where they no longer live. If a registered voter moves from one state or county (jurisdiction A) to another (jurisdiction B) without canceling their voter registration in jurisdiction A, they may end up being registered in both jurisdictions. A person commonly overlooks the need for such cancellation amidst the distractions of moving.
Voter registrars eventually remove the mover’s name from the list of registered voters in jurisdiction A, but this removal is not immediate. Therefore, for a time a person is technically registered in two jurisdictions. Does this mean that the person intends to vote twice in the same race, such as the presidency? No.
A dead person may be listed among registered voters. If a person registers and then dies, his or her name may continue to be on the list of registered voters until it’s purged. Does this mean that someone is voting in place of the dead person? No.
Other ineligible voters may appear on a list of registered voters. Sometimes a small fraction of the persons swept up in a voter registration drive are noncitizens, convicted felons or otherwise ineligible to vote. Does this mean that these ineligible persons voted or will vote? No.
The often thankless task of keeping the list of registered voters accurate is never-ending, as people continue to move, die and be inadvertently swept up in voter registration drives.
Studies have consistently shown that persons do not intentionally vote unless eligible to do so. Most of us at one time or another has moved without canceling our voter registration or has known a registered voter who has died — but we don’t consider abusing these situations. Whatever pleasure may be exacted from casting a single vote in an election is far outweighed by the prospect of being prosecuted and jailed for voting illegally. In those very rare instances in which an ineligible person has voted, it has almost always been shown to be a result of an innocent mistake by the ineligible person or an election official.
Therefore, in assessing any claims of voter fraud, it is critical to understand whether the speaker or writer is referring to persons on a registration list or persons who actually voted. Unfortunately, politicians, political consultants and careless commentators often purposely or inadvertently conflate the two. The public must be willing to knowledgeably question any claim.
A further factor must be considered. In a country of over 300 million persons, many have the same name — or even the same name and birth date. It is very easy to confuse eligible and ineligible voters. Every study that has claimed to show ineligible persons voting has been shown to have this problem.
A thorough and unbiased study of possible voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election should be welcome. If ineligible persons voted or persons voted twice, let us know and learn. Otherwise, Americans will be left now and in the future with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud coming from Donald Trump’s administration at the White House. The claim of “rampant” voter fraud is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to agree on a meaningful bipartisan study. We should not lose this chance.
Bickerstaff is a retired University of Texas law professor.