US & World

Political experts look at whether voter fraud is possible

On Election Day, the voters will finally have their say. Or will they? There are Democrats and Republicans who are convinced the other side is plotting to steal the election and might be able to pull it off. In the second part in her series on election trust, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde spoke with voting experts to find out whether there's reason to worry.

Kitty Felde: Republicans usually define election fraud as folks casting ballots when they're not eligible to do so. Democrats define it as voters blocked from the polls – or voting machines that can be rigged. But how much fraud is there on a typical Election Day?

Thad Hall: It's hard to study election fraud in America, because we don't have much election fraud at all.

Felde: Thad Hall is a political science professor at the University of Utah.

Hall: The evidence that there is election fraud in the United States that deals with fraud that changes vote totals is relatively low. And if we look at prosecutions of fraud cases, they're actually pretty low as well, both at the state level and at the national level. And so we don't really see a lot of evidence that there are systematic efforts at fraud.

Felde: But the fraud fears persist. Among the most publicized is the fear that somebody will rig the voting machines to favor a candidate. Can it happen? Well John Lindback has been in charge of elections in Oregon for seven years.

John Lindback: There has never a documented case – never – at least in the past three, four, five decades in this country, that somebody rigged a voting machine in order to affect the outcome of an election. Never.

Felde: That's not to say that somebody hasn't tried. Donetta Davidson is with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It works on national standards for elections. What Davidson typically sees isn't fraud. It's more like petulant mischief.

Donetta Davidson: I had a small community that somebody didn't like optical scan equipment. So they tried to stuff tea bags into the counter in the precinct.

I had another person that didn't like 'em in a larger county, put honey all over his ballot to try to destroy that so it wouldn't take any other ballots. But that was detected immediately by the officials that ran that, the poll workers.

Felde: The University of Utah's Thad Hall says what some label as "fraud" is usually just bad bookkeeping. Some voters double register by mistake. Other times, several voters end up registered at the same home address.

Hall: So we see people fraudulently register, but we don't necessarily see those people then voting fraudulently.

Felde: The Help America Vote Act – or HAVA – requires states to keep a database of voters. HAVA also provided federal money to elections officials to update voting machines.

Computer scientist Doug Jones studies voting technology at the University of Iowa. He says voter databases and new voting machines are supposed to inspire confidence in the way elections are run – but it might not work out that way.

Doug Jones: Change breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty is fertile ground for error – and whenever there's error, you've got the possibility for headlines.

Combine that change with the fact that we are in the middle of one of the most competitive periods politically in United States politics, and you really have a recipe for some serious controversy.

Felde: That's why Oregon's John Lindback says he's resigned to the likelihood that election officials will end up as the story the day after the election.

Lindback: No election system ever is good enough or satisfactory enough for the candidate who loses the election.

Felde: Do you have confidence in the way elections are run? Tomorrow, we'll find out what makes a confident voter.