9 fact-checks about voting and elections

Signs outside a polling place in Tampa, Fla. (Tampa Bay Times photo)
Signs outside a polling place in Tampa, Fla. (Tampa Bay Times photo)

After months of campaigning, Election Day is finally here. (Say it with us, Yay!) Voters will head to the polls across the country to elect members of Congress, governors and settle ballot issues.

In honor of Election Day, we’re looking at fact-checks about elections, voter fraud, the right to vote and more. Over the years, we’ve found many statements that either don’t get the details right or are outright wrong.

Justice Department action

We looked at President Barack Obama’s claim about how aggressive the U.S. Justice Department has been in investigating obstacles to voting. During the week of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act in April 2014, Obama gave a fiery speech in which he attacked Republicans for leading efforts to pass laws "making it harder, not easier, for people to vote" and noting that the Justice Department had "taken on more than 100 voting rights cases since 2009."

Those 102 cases included instances in which the department was the plaintiff, defendant or played some other role. So the Justice Department didn’t initiate the action in all of those cases. Because Obama was vague about what he meant by "taken on" cases we rated this claim Half True.

How many are disenfranchised

We fact-checked a claim about where Florida ranks nationally on denying felons the right to vote. "Of the approximately 6 million disfranchised citizens in the Unites States, one-quarter are Floridians," said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition."

The numbers came from research done two sociology professors -- Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of New York University. They concluded that 5.85 million felons couldn’t vote nationally as of December 2010, including 1.5 million in Florida -- about a quarter.  However, part of the researchers’ totals were based on an estimate of ex-cons who have completed their sentences but still can’t vote. We couldn’t find any alternative calculations, but different methods of estimation could reveal different figures. We rated Meade’s claim Mostly True.

Identifying noncitizens on the voter rolls

In 2012, Florida’s Division of Elections put together a list of about 180,000 potential noncitizens based on driver license data. The state later reduced that list to 2,600 -- and then again to about 200. Amid multiple errors and problems, the state scrapped their effort as Election Day approached. Secretary of State Ken Detzner decided to delay that until after the 2014 election.

Detzner has proposed using a federal immigration database -- called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE -- to purge Florida’s voter rolls. He defended the use of SAVE during a 2013 hearing.

"In fact, Homeland Security’s ‘benefit categories’ lists checking voter registration citizenship status as one of its main functions," he said. "The federal government allows SAVE to be used and check legal status as part of an ensuring the eligibility of registered voters."

A federal document listed voter registration as one of the benefits that SAVE data can be used for to check citizenship status. However, only a few states use it that way. SAVE is primarily used for agencies to check citizenship status for public benefits or driver licenses. For fiscal year 2013, voter registration queries equaled less than 1 percent of the searches. We rated this claim False.

Shark attacks or voter fraud?

In 2012, we fact-checked a statement that alleged Florida had more incidents of shark attack than voter fraud. So we compared documented instances of sharks attacking human victims with voter fraud cases deemed legally sufficient for an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. We found more shark attacks.

There are some caveats, though. For example, a "case" does not always include just one instance of fraud. Overall, we rated the statement from the Florida ACLU as Mostly True.

Voter fraud studies

We looked at a claim from U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, in a 2013 opinion column about Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott. "Abbott advocates the use of voter ID laws, allegedly to stop voter fraud," the Johnson wrote. "Studies have shown that voter fraud is nonexistent in Texas." We couldn’t find studies showing fraud to be nonexistent. To the contrary, Abbott’s records show 18 convictions, no-contest pleas or guilty pleas on voter fraud charges from 2002 through 2012. That’s not a lot of fraud, by any means, but it still evidently occurred. We rated her statement False.

Bribery via cigarette

Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson said Democrats have tried to bribe voters with cigarettes.

"I don't think as a general matter you should be encouraging people who don't know anything about what they're voting for to vote," Carlson said. "That's what the Democrats do, giving Newports to the homeless to get them to the polls. That's literally true. Republicans shouldn't follow suit on that. You shouldn't pander to people."

On one occasion in Milwaukee, as many as three Democrats gave rides to homeless men to City Hall to cast absentee ballots. At some point, they gave some of the men cigarettes. There is no evidence that the cigarettes were Newports, and investigators did not find that the cigarettes were offered as an inducement to vote. We rated his claim Half True.

Voter ID problems

Abbott has strongly defended a 2011 Texas law that requires voters to have specific forms of photo ID. "I haven't ever seen anything that was overhyped as much as some partisan efforts to overhype concerns about this," Abbott said, "when, in reality, there has been no problems whatsoever."

None is not correct. News stories reveal various if rare experiences that could be construed as problems, such as voters having to scramble to get the proper ID. This claim has an element of truth but overlooks the reality that there were some problems. We rated it Mostly False.

Restoring the right to vote

In Florida, former Gov. Charlie Crist -- who wants his job back -- has reached out to black voters in part by emphasizing his record on making it easier for certain felons to regain their right to vote, and that’s led to attacks from incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.

"Here's Charlie's plan," Scott said during the CNN debate. "You commit a heinous crime, as soon as you get out of jail, you get to vote. Stalk, you get to vote as soon as you walk out. You have intentional permanent disfigurement of a child, you walk out of jail, you immediately get to vote"

We found Scott was distorting Crist’s position. Crist made it easier for felons to get their rights restored, but they didn’t regain those rights immediately after leaving jail.

The offenders had to complete the terms of their sentence, including probation, to qualify. And then the Clemency Board had to sign off on the restorations. The most serious violent offenders had to undergo an investigation and hearing.

The only kernel of truth here is that it is possible that some felons who had committed violent crimes got their rights restored, but it wasn’t immediately upon leaving jail. So we rated this claim Mostly False.

Vote by mail in Colorado

Fox News host Megyn Kelly said a Colorado law "literally allows residents to print ballots from their home computers, then encourages them to turn ballots over to ‘collectors’ in what appears to be an effort to do away with traditional polling places."

That’s not correct, as Kelly subsequently conceded. The big change in Colorado with the 2014 midterm elections is a universal mail-in system for active, registered voters. Those ballots are mailed to voters; voters do not print them out. We rated her statement False.