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Voter impersonation is rare, North Carolina's Cooper says
If Your Time is short
- North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told CNN's Jake Tapper that voter ID laws aim to stop something that isn't a "widespread problem."
- Over the last few years, a few dozen cases of voter impersonation have been found across the country.
- However, those cases make up such a small fraction of the ballots cast that experts consider the problem to be "virtually nonexistent."
With Georgia lawmakers adopting new voter identification requirements, CNN’s Jake Tapper sought perspective from a politician who’s witnessed a similar push for election security in the South: North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
North Carolina lawmakers in 2013 passed a voter ID law that was later struck down, and then enacted new voter ID laws after a voter referendum in 2018.
Cooper, who witnessed the state’s initial voter ID push while serving as attorney general, told Tapper he believes photo ID requirements are unnecessary.
"You do need security to make sure that people’s votes count and that people aren’t cheating. But the problem is you don’t see widespread problems with things they’re trying to attack, like voter ID," Cooper said in the segment, which he tweeted on March 26.
"People don’t go in and pretend to be someone else to go in and vote," he continued. "You just don’t see that kind of fraud. Yet you have legislation that is making it harder and harder for people to vote."
Cooper, a Democrat, suggested voter impersonation isn’t a "widespread problem." Is that right?
Generally speaking, yes. While it has happened, it is extremely rare.
PolitiFact has written about this topic multiple times, even finding in April 2016 that people were more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate someone else at the polls.
We thought we’d check-in with experts again, since there have been two presidential elections since that lightning comparison. The findings haven’t changed.
While there have been a few dozen documented cases of voter impersonation over the years, the incidents have had so little impact on elections that experts have referred to the issue as "virtually nonexistent."
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about here. There are many kinds of voter fraud and Cooper’s comment is only directed at one of them: voter impersonation. Fraud can also happen when people:
- Register to vote using inaccurate information,
- Vote more than once,
- Vote when they’re not eligible, or
- Forge absentee ballot information.
Groups such as the left-leaning Brennan Center and the conservative Heritage Foundation have followed fraud cases over the years. However, there’s no official government database that’s constantly updating a list of impersonation cases across the U.S.
In other words, we don’t have exact numbers on what percentage of voter fraud cases involve impersonation, specifically. But experts say the number is very low. The Brennan Center reports impersonation is "virtually nonexistent."
News21, a student reporting project based at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, in 2012 used the same language — "virtually non-existent"— after analyzing 2,068 cases of alleged election-fraud dating back to 2000.
Justin Levitt, a democracy scholar at the Loyola Law School, is considered a leading source of information for voter fraud and election laws. Levitt authored what the Brennan Center considers its seminal report on the issue, "The Truth About Voter Fraud," which in 2007 found impersonation incident rates between 0.0003% and 0.0025%.
Levitt has continued researching fraud cases across the country, finding 31 potential incidents between 2000 and 2014.
Levitt says he looked for the type of fraud that photo ID laws might stop, meaning he excluded cases that involved a fake ID or tampering by a poll worker. He also said he documented credible cases, not just those that are prosecuted.
Levitt says he has continued to receive reports of fraud since 2014 and is now up to about 45 total cases, he told PolitiFact NC in an email.
"I continue to welcome additional reports of impersonation fraud, if they’re specific and credible," he said. However, he added, "Claims of irregularity vastly exceed actual incidents of irregularity. Second, most irregularity involves mistake or misinformation rather than intentional malfeasance."
The Heritage Foundation created a database on its website that chronicles different types of fraud. Its database, which the group says isn’t comprehensive, features 13 cases of impersonation fraud dating back to 2004.
In North Carolina, the State Elections Board has referred seven cases of impersonation fraud for prosecution dating back to 2015. The board referred four cases from the 2020 election to prosecutors, according to board spokesman Patrick Gannon. One case was declined and three are pending district attorney review, he said. More than 5.5 million people in North Carolina voted in the 2020 general election.
"Voter impersonation is rare in North Carolina," Gannon told PolitiFact NC in an email. "Often, cases of voter impersonation involve a family member or loved one casting a ballot for a recently deceased loved one." Both of the cases the board referred for prosecution in 2016 involved family members casting a ballot on behalf of a recently-deceased loved one, he said.
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, told PolitiFact NC that impersonation fraud is "by far the least prevalent type of election fraud there is."
Hasen’s books, "The Voting Wars" in 2012 and "Election Meltdown'' in 2020, each examine reports of fraud across the country. For the latter book, Hasen scoured records looking for historical accounts of coordinated voter impersonation. He found none. "It is an exceedingly dumb way to steal an election," he wrote in Election Meltdown.
"Because one would have to hire people to go to the polls claiming to be someone else, hope that the people being impersonated had not yet voted, hope that the people being paid to commit felonies would actually cast a secret ballot the way the payer wants, and repeat this process undetected on a large enough scale to sway an election."
Lorraine Minnite, professor of political science at Rutgers University, wrote "The Myth of Voter Fraud," in 2010. In an interview with News21 and reprinted in Governing magazine, Minnite described voter impersonation as an "irrational behavior."
"You’re not likely to change the outcome of an election with your illegal fraudulent vote, and the chances of being caught are there and we have rules to prevent against it," she told News21.
Cooper said "People don’t go in and pretend to be someone else to go in and vote. You just don’t see that kind of fraud."
It’s possible that someone could interpret Cooper’s comments to mean that no one has ever committed voter impersonation fraud. Experts have counted a few dozen cases over the past two decades.
But Cooper is right that, statistically, it almost never happens. Experts say impersonation attempts are the least common types of voter fraud, describing it as virtually non-existent.
We rate his claim Mostly True.
Story by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Sweeping changes to Georgia elections signed into law," posted March 25, 2021.
Story by WRAL, "Federal appeals court backs NC voter ID law," posted Dec. 2, 2020.
Tweet by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on March 26, 2021.
Email exchange with Justin Levitt, a democracy scholar at the Loyola Law School.
Email exchange with Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California.
Email exchange with Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Audit by the North Carolina State Board of Elections updated Jan. 15, 2021.
Fact check by PolitiFact, "Which happens more: People struck by lightning or people committing voter fraud by impersonation?" posted April 7, 2016.
Reports by the Brennan Center, "The Myth of Voter Fraud," and "Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth," and "The Truth about Voter Fraud."
Voter fraud database compiled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Report by News21, "Comprehensive Database of U.S. Voter Fraud Uncovers No Evidence That Photo ID Is Needed," published Aug. 12, 2012.
Story by News21 in Governing Magazine, "Study Finds Zero Prosecuted Cases of Voter Impersonation," published Aug. 23, 2016.
Column in the Washington Post, "A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast," posted Aug. 6, 2014.
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Voter impersonation is rare, North Carolina's Cooper says
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