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Debunking the zombie claim that ‘dead people always vote Democrat’
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• At least six cases that have been adjudicated in court and subject to media coverage over the past five years involved defendants who were either registered Republicans or said that they supported Donald Trump.
Kevin Rinke’s latest campaign ad is nothing if not eye-catching.
The ad, designed to bolster the Michigan car dealer’s campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, features Rinke standing next to an actor made up to look like a zombie wearing a Biden-Harris T-shirt and multiple "I voted" stickers.
"Why is it that dead people always vote Democrat(ic)?" Rinke says, motioning to the zombie with bugged-out eyes and a wide-open mouth. Rinke goes on to accuse Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of failing to crack down on voter fraud, saying that if he wins the governorship, he’ll make sure that voters are "registered, identified and alive."
Katie Martin, a Rinke campaign spokesperson, said that a "quick Google search will show multiple news articles on deceased voters voting in elections."
Ballots cast on behalf of dead people does happen, though it’s a tiny fraction of all votes. However, a Google search like the one the Rinke campaign requested shows that its assertion that dead people "always" vote Democratic is itself a zombie claim — and no less mythical than an actual zombie.
"This ad is so incorrect it gave me a headache," said Thessalia Merivaki, a political scientist at Mississippi State University who studies voter fraud. She said there is "zero evidence" that ballots cast by dead people account for more than a tiny fraction of all votes recorded, and there’s also "zero evidence" that such ballots have uniformly been cast in favor of Democrats, Merivaki added.
Politicians aligned with former President Donald Trump have consistently raised the specter of voter fraud to explain how Trump could have lost the state to Joe Biden by more than 154,000 votes in the 2020 presidential race after winning it in 2016. But none of these claims hold water.
For instance, a viral tweet said Wayne County — home to Detroit — had thousands of ballots cast by deceased voters. However, the list contained names of voters outside the county; several were not listed as ever having received or cast an absentee ballot; and at least one voter listed said she was alive and cast a ballot in the election.
The Michigan Secretary of State’s office has previously said that it is "not aware of a single confirmed case showing that a ballot was actually cast on behalf of a deceased individual in the state."
Officials have ways to flag deceased voters, and clerks across the state successfully identified thousands of voters who submitted absentee ballots in 2020 but died before Election Day. Their ballots weren’t counted. In total, clerks across Michigan rejected 3,469 absentee ballots cast by people who were alive when they returned them but died before Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020.
A review by Michigan’s Office of the Auditor General thoroughly debunked charges by Trump and his allies that thousands of ballots were cast on behalf of dead Michigan voters in the 2020 election. The vast majority — 98.8% — of votes cast by those who died before the 2020 election passed away less than 40 days before Election Day.
Ballots cast on behalf of dead voters are rare in other states, too. Merivaki pointed to a 2021 study of Washington state’s vote-by-mail program, a system that is used statewide. The analysis found "extraordinarily low rates of potential fraud related to deceased individuals’ ballots."
The study concluded that "among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state (2011-18), we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters. Even these few cases may reflect two individuals with the same name and birth date, or clerical errors, rather than fraud."
An official review in Georgia found that in the 2020 election, just four absentee ballots were cast on behalf of deceased voters.
What fraud cases do exist include many examples of voters acting in grief over the loss of a relative.
For instance, in Pierce County, Washington, auditor Julie Anderson found five instances of ballot fraud on behalf of dead voters in the 2020 election, several of which were cast by "a household member who firmly believes their loved one would have wanted to vote and wanted to participate," the Tacoma News Tribune reported. (The newspaper did not report the partisan affiliation of the voters.)
States like Michigan typically make public whether a voter has cast a ballot in a given election, but they do not specify for whom an individual has voted. In fact, the government doesn’t even know how someone voted because a marked-up absentee ballot is removed from its envelope before being counted, a process that separates specific votes cast from a voter’s identifying information.
When we combed news reports in recent years for cases of ballot fraud on behalf of deceased voters, we found that Republicans were more often the perpetrators. This does not mean that only Republicans perpetrate this kind of fraud; ours is not a scientific study, and it’s possible that other occurrences, by either Democrats or Republicans, have not been detected or reported on. (One study commissioned by WBBM-TV in Chicago found that 119 ballots were cast on behalf of dead people in the city over the decade ended in 2016; although the city is heavily Democratic, the partisan leanings of the perpetrators are unclear.)
Regardless, the presence of any Republicans committing this sort of voter fraud is enough to undercut Rinke’s sweeping statement that only Democrats do it.
Here are some examples:
• Nevada: In the aftermath of Biden’s roughly 34,000-vote win over Trump in Nevada, Donald Kirk Hartle, a Republican, told KLAS-TV that he was "surprised" to see that his wife cast a ballot "because she passed away three years ago. That is pretty sickening to me, to be honest with you."
While Hartle’s story gained attention from GOP leaders and pundits who were questioning the results of the state’s presidential vote, the tale eventually fell apart, as investigators concluded that Hartle himself had cast the fraudulent ballot.
Hartle pleaded guilty to one count of voting more than once in an election, receiving a sentence of probation and a $2,000 fine.
• Pennsylvania: Bruce Bartman from Marple voted on behalf of his late mother in the 2020 presidential election. He pleaded guilty to two counts of perjury and one count of unlawful voting and was sentenced to five years of probation.
Bartman said his illegal vote was cast for Donald Trump, The Associated Press reported. He also registered his late mother-in-law but did not secure an absentee ballot for her.
Bartman apologized, telling the court, "I was isolated last year in lockdown. I listened to too much propaganda and made a stupid mistake."
Meanwhile, in August 2021, a man from the Wilkes-Barre area pleaded guilty to a third-degree misdemeanor — not for voting fraudulently but for filing an absentee ballot application in the name of his late mother. The application cited a need to vote absentee because the man’s mother was purportedly "visiting great grandkids Oct. 24-Nov. 10."
The defendant, Robert Richard Lynn, was a registered Republican, the Times-Leader newspaper reported, citing state records. He was sentenced to six months of probation and 40 hours of community service.
• Florida: In 2020, voter Larry Wiggins of Manatee County tried to "test" the system by requesting a ballot for his late wife. "I heard so much about ballots being sent in and people just having found them in different places," Wiggins told WFLA-TV. "I feel like I haven’t done anything wrong." He told the Tampa station, "I said, Well, let me just send it in and see what’s going to happen, to see if they’re actually going to send a ballot for her to vote."
The request was flagged by the local elections office when it went through standard identity checks, so Wiggins did not receive a ballot. Instead, his case received a criminal referral. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 24 months of probation and 100 hours of community service.
Wiggins told WFLA that he was a Democrat who supported Trump.
• Arizona: Tracey Kay McKee of Phoenix cast her late mother’s ballot in the 2020 general election. She was sentenced to two years of probation, fines and community service.
Both McKee and her recently deceased mother were registered Republicans, the Associated Press reported. In court, prosecutors noted that McKee railed against absentee voting during an interview with investigators in which she denied casting the ballot herself, saying, "I don’t believe that this was a fair election. I do believe there was a lot of voter fraud."
• Colorado: In 2017, a woman from Golden pleaded guilty to voting twice for her late father. Toni Lee Newbill had cast ballots in the 2013 general election and the 2016 Republican primary.
Rinke said, "Dead people always vote Democrat."
Not every case of voting on behalf of the dead has been discovered, adjudicated in court, and received media coverage. However, six cases that have surfaced during the past five years produced either a plea of guilty or no contest, and in each case the defendant was either a registered Republican or acknowledged voting for Trump.
Even this small number of cases is enough to invalidate Rinke’s sweeping statement that only Democrats do this.
We rate the statement False.
RELATED: All of our fact-checks about elections
Kevin Rinke, campaign ad, June 1, 2022
Jennifer Wu et al., "The Extraordinarily Low Rate of Dead People Voting by Mail: Evidence from Washington State Administrative Data," Nov. 19, 2020
Michigan Office of the Auditor General, review, March 2022
Michigan Secretary of State, statement on deceased voters, accessed June 2, 2022
Michigan rejected ballot database, accessed June 2, 2022
Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford, Attorney General Ford Announces Voter Fraud Charges, Oct. 21, 2021
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, Re: Elections Integrity Violation Reports, April 21, 2021
Nevada GOP, Tweet, Nov. 7, 2020
Nevada GOP, Tweet, Nov. 10, 2020
Dinesh D’Souza, Tweet, Nov. 11, 2020
Fox News, Tucker Carlson: Yes, dead people voted in this election and Democrats helped make it happen, Nov. 11, 2020
Bradenton Herald, Bradenton voter tried to get mail-in ballot for dead wife ‘to test the system,’ cops say, Oct. 2, 2020
Larry Wiggins probation order
Times Leader, "Dude in Forty Fort’ pleads guilty to absentee ballot violation, Aug. 16, 2021
AP, Man admits to voter fraud in casting dead mother’s ballot, April 30, 2021
Associated Press, "Woman avoids jail for voting dead mom’s ballot in Arizona," May 1, 2022
Colorado Springs Gazette, "Golden woman pleads guilty to voting twice for deceased father," March 8, 2017
Tacoma News-Tribune, "Dead people voted in Pierce County’s 2020 election. But it was grief, not a conspiracy," Sept. 3, 2021 (accessed via Nexis)
WBBM-TV, "2 Investigators: Chicago Voters Cast Ballots From Beyond The Grave," Oct. 27, 2016
The Hill, "Georgia review found just four deceased voters’ ballots cast in 2020 election," Dec. 28, 2021
PolitiFact, "List of alleged dead voters in Wayne County does not provide evidence of voter fraud," Nov. 6, 2020
PolitiFact, "How the GOP spun a 'dead voter' allegation in Nevada," Oct. 26, 2021
Email interview with Thessalia Merivaki, political scientist at Mississippi State University, June 2, 2022
Email interview with Katie Martin, spokesperson for the Rinke campaign, June 2, 2022
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Debunking the zombie claim that ‘dead people always vote Democrat’
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