Michael Smith: Voter fraud, voter suppression or neither?

Michael Smith
Special to Gannett Kansas
Michael Smith

Since the 2000 electoral mess, Republicans have advocated increased restrictions on voting. No official has been more vocal about this than former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

This year, led by President Trump, Republicans are sounding the alarm about possible fraud, given the large number of mail-in and absentee ballots. Democrats counter that Republican attempts to crack down are not based on fraud but rather suppression. They see an attempt to stop people from voting — specifically, people who tend to vote Democratic.

Who’s right and why?

Documented cases of fraud are exceedingly rare. For example, Justin Levitt, of Loyola-Marymount Law School, found that that heavily investigated elections had fraud rates between 0.0003% and 0.0025% — absolutely miniscule numbers. Here in Kansas, Kobach’s eight-year quest to root out fraud generated fewer than 20 prosecutions. Not one of this tiny number had knowingly committed fraud; none were illegal immigrants; and several were Republicans.

Democratic alarms about voter suppression may be exaggerations, too. In a forthcoming book, my colleagues and I find that in general, suppressive voting laws like photo ID and proof of citizenship (the latter now unenforceable due to court rulings) lower voter turnout by roughly 2% — more in some cases, less in others. Republican voters are as likely to be turned away as Democrats.

The rancor is based on a presumption that higher voter turnout benefits Democrats, while lower turnout benefits Republicans, and it just is not true. The same holds for measures to increase turnout. A team of researchers from Stanford University recently studied states holding their elections by mail. Their review of California, Washington state and Utah found that turnout increased by about 2%. Neither party benefited from this increase.

The notable exception to this trend is felony disenfranchisement. Found mostly in the South, strict laws prohibiting those with a felony history from voting again lower turnout and Democratic vote share, primarily due to their disproportionate impact on African-Americans.

What are the key things to watch in 2020? First, most ballots are received and counted by the counties. Their ability to process the ballots is critical. Some areas, particularly urban counties in other states have a long, difficult history of poorly managed elections and outdated voter rolls.

Recent controversies regarding voting drop boxes in Wyandotte County raise concerns here, but plans are now in the works for additional drop boxes. Still, these counties need to be careful to count every eligible ballot.

Meanwhile, the long delay in counting ballots in battleground states means that we may need to be patient, given the lack of uniform applications of state law and procedures. Unfortunately, many states have laws that prevent counting mail-in votes until after polls close, which will produce significant delays.

Likewise, the post-election day grace periods for mail-in ballots being received vary from state to state, with Kansas allowing three days. You can help by casting your ballot as soon as possible.

Next time, Kansans should look west. Colorado has become a national benchmark for fair, rigorous, bipartisan, carefully monitored elections, conducted by mail. Kansas and most other states need to catch up.

In the meantime, the primary concern this year is ballots being rejected due to minor technicalities or clerical error. Evidence for fraud is minimal to nonexistent.

Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University. He can be reached at