On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump used Twitter to warn the nation about voter fraud. As he had many times before and since, the president claimed huge numbers of U.S. residents were casting ballots illegally.
At the same time, officials in North Carolina were investigating a Republican campaign that abused the absentee ballot system to tip a congressional race in favor of the GOP candidate.
The two cases demonstrate an important distinction between claims of voter fraud and claims of election fraud.
Voter fraud involves people casting ballots when they are not eligible to do so. It would include cases of non-citizens, people who vote more than once, and felons who are barred by law from voting.
Election fraud involves illegal activity by candidates, campaigns and election officials. Voter fraud and election fraud can overlap, but they shouldn’t be confused.
Not so long ago, then Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach led a special presidential commission focused on turning the president’s propaganda about voter fraud into something real. It failed spectacularly. Credible research repeatedly shows voter fraud is rare.
Election fraud is not quite so uncommon. But when confronted with evidence of election fraud in North Carolina, Trump was silent. Something’ has gone awry when federal officials eagerly accuse voters of cheating but try to ignore crimes committed by partisan campaigns.
For the most part, North Carolina state officials acted ethically as they responded to claims of misconduct. That’s why the Ninth District election is starting from the ground up, with a primary set for May 14 and a general election for Sept. 10.
Election integrity must be a bipartisan issue, one that requires officials to be smart and fair about the goals they set and the methods they use.
Trump’s Jan. 29 tweet, for example, amplified the “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” sent by the Texas attorney general.
Using inaccurate and out-of-date data, Texas top law enforcement official created a list that basically accused 95,000 Texans of breaking the law. Texas’ governor thanked him. The president used the alert to rally his anti-immigrant supporters.
Local election officials in Texas found the list full of errors. It was a waste of their time and taxpayers’ money.
Florida learned the same lesson in 2012, when it used obsolete and unverified databases to try to manufacture a similar voter fraud crisis. As in Texas, Florida officials were focused on intimidating and scaring immigrants. They claimed they found about 180,000 non-citizens who had illegally registered to vote in Florida. Simple checks by local authorities showed the list to be out of date and virtually useless. According to factcheck.org, in the end about 85 people were removed from voter registration rolls, but it was unclear whether any of them had ever voted.
The Texas list shows that some Republicans remain intent on suppressing the votes of people who tend to vote Democratic. Something has gone awry when officials who are supposed to champion voter participation instead discourage it.
Meanwhile, the misuse of absentee ballots appears to be growing — and not just among Republicans. Democratic campaigns also have misused absentee ballots to boost votes for their candidate.
The process can include requesting and submitting ballots for people the campaigns know won’t be going to the polls; collecting ballots from voters and submitting only those that support their candidate; or registering people to vote and then using their names to cast ballots.
It’s hard to know the size of the problem with absentee ballots. Usually no investigation is initiated unless the election is close, fraud is suspected, and multiple complaints are made. Even then, investigations often hinge on whether officials are motivated more by partisan loyalty or public duty.
Our election system is pretty solid, but it could be improved if we had more transparency in the system and more independent audits of elections at the local and state levels. Those are steps that would help ensure fair and honest elections, without hindering citizens’ ability to participate.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.