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Fact-checking two false claims by Trump alleging widespread voter fraud

Donald Trump called supporters in Grand Junction, Colo., to watch the polls in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Chicago. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

“Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”

–Donald Trump, post on Twitter, Oct. 17, 2016

“Go sit there with your friends [at polling places] and make sure it’s on the up and up. Because you know what, that’s a big, big problem in this country and nobody wants to talk about it.”

–Trump, campaign rally, Sept. 30, 2016

Trump has made several claims alleging a “rigged” election system. We looked at two of the Republican presidential nominee’s claims: that there is widespread voter fraud, and that undocumented immigrants are voting and swaying elections. We’ll rate the two separately, starting with the first claim.

The Facts

The Trump campaign pointed to a 2012 Pew Center on the States study of ways to make the election system more accurate, cost-effective and efficient. At an Oct. 17 rally, Trump cited the three main findings of the speech to back up his claim that voter fraud is common across the country:

  • About 24 million (1 in every 8) voter registrations were significantly inaccurate or no longer valid because people moved, had died or were inactive voters.
  • More than 1.8 million records for people who are deceased, but whose registrations were still on voter rolls.
  • About 2.75 million people were registered to vote in more than one state. This could happen if voters move to a new state and register to vote without notifying their former state.
  • Outdated technology, shrinking government budgets and paper-based registration systems contributed to inaccuracies and inefficiencies.

But the study does not say that these problems indicated signs of isolated or widespread voter fraud. Yet Trump used the 1.8 million figure to inaccurately claim at the rally: “More than 1.8 million deceased individuals right now are listed as voters. Oh, that’s wonderful. Well, if they’re going to vote for me, we’ll think about it, right? But I have a feeling they’re not going to vote for me. Of the 1.8 million, 1.8 million is voting for somebody else.”

The campaign pointed to three instances of voting irregularities — in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Virginia. But they were isolated instances that do not amount to widespread voter fraud — and do not show they are as common as he says they are.

Trump’s campaign then sent lists of nearly 300 instances of voting irregularities between 2004 and 2016. Some of the cases involved indictments and guilty pleas of actual voter fraud, where someone illegally mailed an early ballot or cast a ballot at a polling place to defraud the system.

But the lists also included unsupported allegations of fraud, investigations into potential fraud and reports of less nefarious activities, such as people voting incorrectly and voting machines malfunctioning.

Even if all 300 instances were confirmed cases of actual voter fraud, they would make up such a small portion of total ballots cast in that 12-year period that it would be preposterous to call voter fraud a widespread or a “big, big” problem.

More than 1 billion ballots were cast from 2000 through 2014. There were 31 incidents of specific, credible allegations of voter impersonation at the polls, according to research by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, who has been tracking such data for years. So the problem that Trump is warning his voters to watch for at the polls — to make sure things are “on the up and up” — happens at the rate of 31 out of 1 billion ballots cast.

Out of 2,068 allegations of fraud cases in 2000 to 2012, there were guilty verdicts in 159 cases, according to an analysis by News21, a journalism project of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

Coordinated voter fraud has happened, but on a much smaller scale. In 1994, a federal judge invalidated the results of a state Senate race. Democratic campaign workers forged absentee ballots, which ultimately tipped the election by 461 votes. Democrats on the three-member elected board of elections intentionally failed to enforce the election law, even though they were aware of the fraud.

But it would be certainly nearly impossible to do something like that to tip a presidential election, our colleague Sari Horwitz found. We’re talking about a nationwide effort of local, state and federal election officials colluding to commit a felony. Lawyers for both major parties and every poll watcher would have to be in on it.

A handful of people have tried to vote on behalf of dead people — usually their family member or spouse — but there is no evidence such voter rolls are being manipulated on a large scale. And there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud with people double voting.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump uses “voter fraud” has become a catchall phrase for all voting irregularities. Confirmed instances of actual voter fraud do exist, but Trump makes a totally unsupported extrapolation of these isolated cases to say they are indicative of a widespread fraud in the U.S. election system. We wonder whether it ever occurred to Trump that “nobody is talking about” the “big, big problem” of voter fraud because that “big, big” problem doesn’t exist. Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

“Then there’s the issue of illegal immigrants voting. The following comes from a 2014 report from The Washington Post: … ‘Non-citizen votes could have given Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health-care reform and many other reforms, and other Obama administration priorities.’ Now, it continues: “It is ‘possible that non-citizen votes were responsible for Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina. Obama won the state’ by 14,000 votes, so a turnout by 5.1 percent of North Carolina’s adult citizens.’” 

— Trump, campaign rally, Oct. 17, 2016

Trump claims that illegal immigrants are voting in and tipping elections. During an Oct. 17 rally, Trump read excerpts from research that was published two years ago in the Monkey Cage, a blog hosted by The Washington Post. The campaign lists this research as the evidence for Trump’s claims regarding illegal immigrant votes.

But Trump is incorrectly using the data, and does not note that there have been critiques of this research. Some critiques are now being incorporated into a revision of the original study.

Old Dominion University professors Jesse Richman and David Earnest studied voting participation rates of noncitizens by using data from 2008 and 2010 collected through the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies. This data set comes from a YouGov-Polimetrix opt-in Internet survey. Researchers were able to cross-check 40 percent of the data they collected from 2008.

In the October 2014 column, researchers shared their findings based on results from 339 noncitizen respondents in 2008 and 489 in 2010. Using these numbers, they found that 6.4 percent of noncitizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of noncitizens voted in 2010. But the raw numbers are small: just 21 voters in 2008 and 8 voters in 2010.

Researchers then used these rates to extrapolate that the participation of noncitizens was “large enough to plausibly account for Democratic victories in a few close elections.”

A number of researchers were skeptical of the findings and methodology, and they published critiques of it.

Stephen Ansolabehere, who creates and runs the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (used in the research by Richman and Earnest), and two other researchers offered the most thorough critique. They replicated the research by interviewing the same panel of respondents about their voting patterns in 2010 and 2012. They found that people had identified as a citizen one year, but noncitizen the next — indicating misclassification.

They concluded that all of the cases of noncitizen voting “are nearly certainly citizen voters who are misclassified as being non-citizens. Hence, their predicted vote rates of non-citizens in fact reflect the behavior of citizens.” Because the citizen group is large compared with the noncitizen group in the survey, even a small classification error could be substantial, they found.

Ansolabehere responded to Trump’s comments in an Oct. 19 Monkey Cage post, saying “there is absolutely no evidence from the data that non-citizens voted in recent presidential elections.”

Richman said Ansolabehere’s critique was thoughtful and useful, and that he is working on a revision based on the concerns raised in the response. But Richman said his results are valid and rejected claims that his findings were entirely spurious. There were 10 people who twice answered they were noncitizens but had voted in 2012, Richman said.

But Richman said that people like Trump who are using the study to make an unsupported claim of massive vote fraud are taking the findings out of context.

“One should keep in mind that such elections can be swayed by any number of factors that arguably bias election results toward, or against, particular parties and candidates,” Richman said. “Put another way, our results suggest that almost all elections in the U.S. are not determined by non-citizen participation, with occasional and very rare potential exceptions.”

[Update: During this speech, Trump also read a portion of the Monkey Cage article that “more than 14 percent of non-citizens in both 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote." Then the point was misused by Eric Trump to say that 14 percent of all noncitizens were registered. We awarded the claim Four Pinocchios.]

The Pinocchio Test

As the researcher of the study notes, Trump’s citing of these findings to back up his claim that illegal immigrants are voting and swaying elections is unfounded. Yet again, Trump takes isolated instances to extrapolate to a much larger trend, and earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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Scenes from the third and final presidential debate in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NY - At the third and final Presidential debate, Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Republican Nominee for President of the United States Donald Trump answer questions from Fox journalist moderator Chris Wallace at University of Nevada Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday October 19, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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