Donald Trump, who won the 2016 presidential election, is now claiming that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in that election, which is a bizarre accusation for the winner to make.
But, in fact, he is asking a question about voter fraud that appears impossible to answer.
The whole controversy over voter fraud makes me think of my favorite 60 Minutes episode, decades ago, where a federal drug enforcement official was asked to explain how in one drug bust his agency had confiscated more cocaine then they estimated was smuggled into the US every year. The official wisely said that their estimation had been wrong and noted it was difficult to estimate what you can’t see.
It’s like being asked to estimate how many marbles are in a container when you can’t see the container and don’t know whether the container in question is a pillbox or a warehouse.
Estimating the number of fraudulent votes cast is similar. First of all, unlike drug enforcement, no one is out looking for voter fraud. Secondly, when voter fraud is discovered, at least in Guilford County, nothing happens to the person who fraudulently cast a vote.
The whole voter identification system is based on an outdated model. The idea behind walking up to a table in your precinct and giving your name and address to an elections official is that there is a strong likelihood someone in your precinct polling place will know you.
If you vote early, the chance that anyone at the early voting polling place will know you is far less likely. According to Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt, if a person goes to vote and gives not their own name but the name of another registered voter and the proper address, if the elections official has no reason to believe that the voter is not who he says he is, meaning in this case they don’t know the person voting or the person whose name they are using, the elections official has no reason to stop that person from voting, and they can’t ask for identification.
Collicutt said that one of the deterrents to voter fraud is the risk/reward aspect of casting one fraudulent vote. Casting a vote under someone else’s name is a felony. The idea is that a person would not risk being convicted of a felony for one vote. But Collicutt also said that, since he started working at the Guilford County Board of Elections in 2004, he has never known anyone to be prosecuted for casting a fraudulent vote in Guilford County.
So although the risk involved in casting one fraudulent vote in theory is high, in reality there is no risk at all unless you believe that no one in Guilford County in the past 13 years has cast a fraudulent vote.
Collicutt said that, in the last election, they had several instances of people who voted early and then voted again on Election Day. He said if a person is allowed to vote twice then the early vote is pulled, and to his knowledge no one has ever had two votes counted in any election since he became director of elections in 2013.
But it appears that if someone had a list of names of people who were registered but, for instance, hadn’t voted in years and went to each of the early voting sites and voted under a different false name, it would be highly unlikely they would be caught unless someone who worked at the polls knew them, or someone close to them in line knew them, overheard them give a false name and alerted the elections officials.
There is also no check for citizenship. If a person has proper identification and says they are a citizen, there is no way for the elections officials to verify if they are actually citizens.
Collicutt said, “We don’t have an upfront citizenship check.” He said, “We don’t have a database of citizens.”
So if someone claims to be a citizen and has identification proving their address and a valid Social Security number, they are allowed to register and vote. Once again, falsely claiming to be a citizen and voting is perjury, but the odds of being caught are small because there is no way for elections officials to check and find out if someone is a citizen.
It is also possible for a voter to vote twice in different states. Collicutt said that if someone is registered in North Carolina and registered in another county in the state, that North Carolina had a database to prevent that person from voting in two counties.
When someone registers to vote in Guilford County and reports that they were previously registered in another state, that state is notified and their name is supposed to be stricken from the voter registration rolls in that state. However, if someone registers to vote and says that they were not previously registered to vote, there is no central database to check and see if they were registered in another state.
Or if someone lies about the state they were registered in previously, there is no way to discover where they are also registered.
So once again, if someone is dishonest and wants to vote in two states, there is currently no database that would catch them.
Then there is the fact that even people who are caught are not prosecuted, at least not in Guilford County.
Several years ago a young man was caught voting twice in a City Council election. He voted during early voting and then voted again on Election Day. A poll worker realized that he had voted early, but not before he had been allowed to vote the second time. It turned out that he voted both times listing a vacant lot as the address where he lived. There was no indication that he ever lived on the vacant lot.
His punishment for voting twice from a vacant lot was that his early vote was cancelled and he was only allowed to vote once in the election like everyone else.
No charges were brought against him, but the investigation revealed that in a previous election he had been the campaign manager for a candidate, so he should have been familiar with the voting process. In other words, it was not a case of being confused about how early voting works.
If people who knowingly vote fraudulently are not prosecuted, where is the deterrent?
The whole system is based on the honesty of the voter – far different from the way the rest of our society works.
For example, before a person is allowed to board a commercial aircraft, they are asked if they have any weapons or other banned substances. If the person answers no, they are not then allowed to bypass the metal detectors and X-ray machines and board the plane. They must go through the whole process, including being patted down if the metal detector or X-ray machine shows any abnormalities. The government refuses to accept the passenger’s word but attempts to make certain that they were in fact being honest when they were asked the initial question.
If airport security were handled the same way as voter identification, once the initial question was asked, the word of the passenger would be accepted. To further the analogy, if while a person was boarding the plane a gun fell out of their pocket, the gun would be taken away from them, but they would still be allowed to fly. No charges would ever be brought and, most likely in this imaginary world, their gun would be given back to them when they returned.
To buy certain over-the-counter drugs, the customer has to produce a photo ID. And as you are leaving some big box stores, the store employee at the door doesn’t ask if you paid for everything in your cart, they ask to see your receipt. It isn’t considered discrimination to ask for a receipt; people accept it.
Trump is claiming that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election. The truth is that nobody knows if he is correct or not because nobody is looking for fraudulent votes and the elections officials have very limited resources when determining if a fraudulent vote has been cast.
Trump may be right or he may be off by a couple million votes. The problem is, nobody knows and there is no reasonable way to find out.