This week, Senate Republicans in lockstep blocked key reforms of the For the People Act that would address gerrymandering and big money in politics, plus enhance ethics for federal office holders. The Act would also strengthen voting rights—on which a big battle is now underway across the country.
While Democrats in more than half the states have lowered barriers to voting, Republicans are pushing them higher, with campaigns for at least 389 restrictive voter laws in 48 states. Already, 17 states have enacted 28 such bills. But now, the Justice Department is suing Georgia over its new voting restrictions.
Republicans often justify their opposition to lowering voting barriers with the argument that it encourages voter fraud. Arizona’s Republican Representative John Kavanagh told CNN earlier this year that Democrats are “willing to risk fraud” because they “value as many people as possible voting.” Republicans, he underscored, “are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote—but everybody shouldn’t be voting.”
So, now is the critical moment to tackle the myth of significant voter fraud. Here we show how Republicans base their efforts on misleading evidence.
Republicans’ claims of fraud to oppose enhanced voting rights has been fueled by the Heritage Foundation, describing itself as a “pillar of American conservative thought.” For years it has published an online database claiming to show that fraud “threatens the integrity of the voting process.” It prominently describes its database as “A Sampling of Recent Election Fraud Cases from Across the United States,” proclaiming “1,328 proven instances of voter fraud.”
But this database is deeply flawed as evidence to support Republican claims.
Note first that one-fourth of the findings reported are not voter fraud, but instead involve election officials, not voters.
Digging deeper, the evidence that voter fraud is significant melts away.
While the database claims its findings are “recent,” the data cover widely varying periods of time—some going back almost four decades.
Heritage also fails to inform users of the sources of its state-by-state data, its methodology for selecting its “sampling,” the diversity of its sample, why it includes only 47 states, or how its data were verified. We queried Heritage on these points but got no answers.
Given these failings, it is impossible to determine the scale of the problem. However, if Heritage’s “sampling” over almost four decades is indicative of the whole population of voter fraud in the US, it would invalidate the Foundation’s assertion that fraud is significant.
In 2020, 155 million Americans voted. On an annual basis, Heritage reported only three states with more than one voter fraud per million voters. Minnesota had the highest annual rate per million: 12. In the 2020 presidential election, for which Republicans are claiming worrisome voter fraud, the Heritage Foundation reports only 17 voter fraud cases nationwide.
While Republicans suggest the problem is worsening, Heritage data show a national decline over the last ten years.
A few years ago the Brennan Center for Justice published an in-depth critique of this database covering the 2016 election, “Heritage Fraud Database: An Assessment.” But since then, Heritage has apparently done nothing to correct its presentation fueling claims of significant fraud.
Today, perhaps to defend itself against such criticism, Heritage site clearly states that its “database is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list,” but “intended to demonstrate the vulnerabilities in the election system.”
Here, the Foundation seems to try to avoid responsibility for contributing to deepening distrust of election integrity. Yet, its database was used as evidence, for example, by the Trump’s Fraud Commission to try to show that a serious problem exists.
And, just last month, despite the Heritage Foundation’s acknowledgement of the limits of is database, its vice president John Malcom ramped up fear of fraud. He told KTRH radio in Texas: “We have unfortunately a lot of vulnerability, and laxed laws in our states, and our voter rolls in those states are in terrible shape,” and added: “So voter fraud is unfortunately a relatively easy crime to commit, and it’s very difficult to catch after the fact.”
In fighting measures to make voting more accessible, mail-in ballots are a particular target of Heritage Foundation and Republican attack. Yet, this option has been in widespread use for some time, without evidence that it increases risk of fraud.
In 2016, more than 33 million US voters—a quarter of the US total—used mail-in ballots. Seven states—Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington—use mail-in voting predominantly. Yet, in these states the Heritage database suggests voter fraud of any kind is virtually nil.
Beyond the US, forty nations used mail-in ballots in their most recent national election prior to COVID-19. Among them are Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK; and note that these countries rank much higher than the United States in “perceptions of electoral integrity,” according to the Electoral Integrity Project based at Harvard and the University of Sydney. Drawing on its data, US News and World Report notes the U.S. comes in 61st—on par with Mexico and Panama.
In this battle over expanding voter participation, Americans might become more motivated to support reforms in the For the People Act once we register how poorly the U.S. voter-turnout ranks relative to other democracies. In 2018, for example, voter turnout in Sweden was 87 percent and in 2017 in France, 75 percent. In sad comparison, our 2020 voter turnout was 67 percent.
Republicans have freely admitted why they don’t want us to vote: They fear that the more people who vote, the greater the chance Republicans will lose power.
Therefore, we cannot allow fraudulent messaging about voter fraud to stymie us from expanding voting equality, rights, and access. Now is the time for citizen action to protect and advance our democracy. Note that without basic federal standards, we face ever-greater barriers to the franchise.