Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

By W. Gardner Selby March 17, 2016

Light a match to Greg Abbott's ridiculous claim about 'rampant voter fraud'

Greg Abbott took exception to President Barack Obama’s pokes about voter turnout and the governor followed up with a claim that, if supported, would arguably justify Texas Rangers manning polling stations.

Obama, kicking off the South by Southwest Interactive conference March 11, 2016, told Evan Smith, CEO of the Texas Tribune, that the U.S. is the world’s only advanced democracy that "makes it harder for people to vote," perhaps referring to voter registration hurdles or the mandate in dozens of states, including Texas, that voters present a photo ID before casting a ballot (he didn’t specify).

Obama otherwise called it important for conference participants to study ways of redesigning "our systems" to step up voter turnout. Then the Democratic leader said, to laughter, "the folks who are currently governing the good state of Texas aren’t interested in having more people participate."

Abbott, a Republican, told reporters three days later: "To the contrary of the president’s comment, the… fact is, despite our voter registration laws, we had the highest level of turnout than ever before in the primary that occurred just a few weeks before he made that comment."

We’re separately checking his turnout tout.

Abbott, the former longtime state attorney general, went on: "The fact is voter fraud is rampant--and in Texas, unlike some other states and unlike some other leaders, we are committed to cracking down on voter fraud."

Rampant fraud? We wondered, especially because we’ve looked into identified instances, finding them rare.

Abbott offers no backup

Abbott didn’t respond to our request for elaboration. So we don’t know the basis of his "rampant" claim.

But generally, the prevalence of voter fraud has widely been doubted.

In 2013, for instance, a chart provided by then-AG Abbott showed 18 convictions, no-contest pleas or guilty pleas on voter fraud charges from 2002 through 2012. That’s not a lot of fire but it was sufficient for us to find False a Democrat’s claim that studies had shown voter fraud to be non-existent in Texas.

No surge, state records suggest

After Abbott disagreed with Obama, we asked the Texas attorney general’s office for its latest breakdowns. Could there have been a fresh surge in fraud?

Not according to the state documents, updated through February 2016.

But we did learn of the 2015 case of Rosa Maria Ortega, charged with illegally voting in 2012 and 2014. A Tarrant County grand jury indicted Ortega for illegally voting in five Dallas County elections dating from 2005 through May 2014, according to a Nov. 9, 2015, Dallas Morning News account. The story said  she’d allegedly registered to vote by swearing incorrectly that she was a citizen and it quoted Sharen Wilson, the Tarrant County criminal district attorney, saying: "This is a big deal. People insist this kind of thing doesn’t happen, but it’s happening right here at home."

According to the state's updated information, about 20 voting-related referrals to local prosecutors have occurred since 2014 including a few "illegal voting" matters such as the Ortega case.

A conservative compendium

Featured Fact-check

Nationally, the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2015 posted a state-by-state breakdown of voter and election fraud convictions. Its Texas section walks through convictions reached against a dozen Texas residents from 2006 through 2015 for schemes ranging from vote-buying to impersonation fraud at the polls to, in a 2012 instance, trying to register to vote despite lacking citizenship. In 2015, most recently, Francisco "Frankie" Garcia, Rebecca Gonzalez, Diana Balderas Castaneda, and Guadalupe Escamilla were convicted of trying to buy votes in a Donna school board race with cocaine, cash, beer and cigarettes, the foundation says, with all four pleading guilty. Also in 2015, Hazel Woodard of Fort Worth pleaded guilty to impersonation fraud; Woodard had been a candidate for Democratic precinct chair who had her teenage son vote for her husband at the polls out of concern the elder Woodard wouldn’t make it to the polls, the foundation says. The gig was up, according to the foundation, after the dad showed up to vote after all.

More rare than a lightning strike?

Other resources indicate there’s not much there there.

In 2012, the News21 investigative project headquartered at Arizona State University’s journalism school compiled a database that showed 104 Texas cases of alleged election fraud among 2,068 nationwide since 2000. The News21 students, who published their results Aug. 12, 2012, gathered allegations through public information requests, news accounts and court records.

According to the project’s website, the students included all cases "that had reached some level of official action: That is, someone was charged, an investigation was opened, a specific accusation was made against a named person." All told, News21 determined that 37 of the 104 Texas allegations were made against voters. Most of the cases were still pending at the time the students published their project in 2012, but 15 had resulted in a guilty plea or conviction, according to the database.

follow-up PolitiFact fact check, posted in August 2015, found that in Texas since 2002, there had been 85 election fraud prosecutions, not all resulting in convictions. Some perspective: From 2000 to 2014, per the Texas Secretary of State’s online record, about 72 million ballots were cast in Texas (and that’s not counting municipal and other local-only elections).

In 2015, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said most of the Texas prosecutions would not have been prevented by the voter ID law. "There were a bunch of prosecutions for unlawfully turning in a ballot that people weren't supposed to have possession. There are a few instances of marking someone else's ballot without their consent — those are all absentee ballots.  There are a few of fake registration, or of voting while ineligible — none of which are stopped by a rule requiring ID at the polls," Levitt said. "There are vanishingly few instances of voter fraud — incidents flat-out, not just prosecutions — that could be stopped by applying a rule requiring ID at the polls."

Also in 2015, Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers University political scientist professor who has testified as an expert on behalf of plaintiffs challenging the Texas voter ID law, pointed out 2012 court testimony by Major Forrest Mitchell, a criminal investigator with the Texas Attorney General’s office, in which Mitchell admitted that only about five of the more than 300 election fraud referrals that had been investigated since 2002 dealt with in-person voter impersonation. Mitchell’s testimony indicated that two of the cases could have been prevented by a voter ID law. Three people were prosecuted, though, since one case involved two people.

According to an August 2014 analysis posted by the Washington Post, Levitt found only three credible allegations of fraud in Texas elections since 2000 which the state’s Republican-brought voter ID law was crafted to prevent.

Separately, Minnite found four cases of this kind from 2000 until 2014.

Four cases of fraud for 72 million votes cast suggests the incidence of Texas voter fraud was about 1 in 18 million.

Plaintiff’s lawyer: ‘Not rampant’

While we didn’t hear more from Abbott, we did reach Jennifer Clark, a voting-rights lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which represents the Texas State Conference of the NAACP and the state’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus in an ongoing lawsuit challenging the Texas voter ID law.

By phone, Clark told us that "under no definition of rampant is voter fraud rampant in Texas and the United States," though, she said, "that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen."

Our ruling

Abbott, defending the Texas mandate to present a photo ID at the polls, said: "Voter fraud is rampant."

If Abbott has the goods on this, he’s keeping secrets. Best we can tell, in-person voter fraud--the kind targeted by the ID law--remains extremely rare, which makes this claim incorrect and ridiculous.

Pants on Fire!

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

News story, "Abbott Rejects Obama Criticism of Texas Voter Turnout Efforts," KUT News, March 14, 2016

Truth-O-Meter articles, "Voter fraud occurs in Texas, though convictions and guilty pleas are rare," PolitiFact Texas, Sept. 13, 2013; "Lightning strikes more common in Texas than in-person voter fraud, says Cory Booker," PolitiFact, Aug. 18, 2015

News blog post, "Non-U.S. citizen indicted in Tarrant County for illegally voting in Dallas County," Crime Blog, the Dallas Morning News, Nov. 9, 2015

Documents showing voter and election fraud matters, Office of the Attorney General of Texas, including prosecutions resolved, charges pending and referrals to the attorney general, March 7, 2016 (received by email from Teresa Farfan, deputy press secretary, OAG, March 16, 2016)

Web page, "A Sampling of Election Fraud Cases From Across the Country," the Heritage Foundation, 2015 (accessed March 16, 2016)

Web page, Texas Secretary of State, "Current Election History," 2015

Telephone interview with Justin Levitt, Loyola Law School at Los Angeles, Aug. 14, 2015

News analysis, "A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast," Justin Levitt, The Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2014

Telephone interview with Lorraine Minnite, Rutgers University, Aug. 14, 2015

Telephone interview, Jennifer Clark, counsel, the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, March 16, 2016

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by W. Gardner Selby

Light a match to Greg Abbott's ridiculous claim about 'rampant voter fraud'

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up