You Asked: How hard is it to commit voter fraud?

On Patreon, we ask supporters to occasionally toss questions over to us that they want answered that are a little bit harder to get an answer to than something you might ask on Quora. For this, the second piece in our new series You Asked, we’re tackling what, according to the president, might be the most popular crime in America.

If I was trying to win an election for someone, how much voter fraud would I need to do? How hard is it, actually, to commit voter fraud in America?

First, some backstory

Donald Trump has been particularly ferocious about alleging that anything short of a landslide victory for the most handsome boy there’s ever been is proof of voter fraud. In 2016, although Trump won the electoral college, he claimed that there was rampant fraud that delivered the popular vote victory to Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s allegation in 2016 was kind of weird. It presumed that Clinton, or someone working for or on behalf of her campaign, had orchestrated this massive voter fraud effort but hadn’t stopped to consider how the electoral college worked, and so it had all been for naught. This is absolutely bonkers. Democrats have lamented for years that they suffer in the electoral college because California is weighted to be worth in the electoral college than it would be if electoral votes were proportional to population, which means that even though 12% of Americans live in California it accounts for just 10.5% of the electoral college, while Wyoming accounts for 0.002% of the population but 0.006% of the electoral college, giving it three times the punching weight of its population. If you were a Democrat trying to rig the election for Democrats, casting extra ballots in California isn’t going to help you, and neither is casting extra ballots in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, southern Maine, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, or the District of Columbia. Instead, you’d want to focus your voter fraud efforts on more swingy places like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, northern Maine, Omaha, Arizona, Nevada, and possibly Georgia.

Nah, I’m just kidding, it’s Florida.

Florida [was] the [fourth]-most populous state, and so has the fourth largest batch of electoral votes to hand out (it has since moved into third place, but the current electoral college is based on the 2010 census). Winning Florida can be decisive and the state is famously uncoordinated, so if you wanted to try a big voter fraud gambit, Florida would be the place to go.

What it would take

If we’re talking about rigging the presidential election, it would take a lot. Donald Trump won Florida by over 350,000 votes, so that’s a lot of ballots to falsify if you want to overtake him.

The other thing is that you can’t know what the ballot count will be. This leaves you two options. Option one is to pump the ballot box with as many fake ballots as possible, ensuring a victory no matter how many votes the other guy gets. Option two is to “find” ballots after the fact, letting you add new ballots until you have defeated your opponent.

Let’s start with option one. In the U.S., voters are recorded into a registry – a process masterfully named “registration” – usually either by filling out a card or by doing something else, like getting a drivers license, and checking a box.

When you cast your ballot, your name is checked off a list of registered voters. The casting part is important – especially in 2020 – because you might request one (or more) mail-in ballots but you’re not considered to have voted until you have voted.

So you need to be a registered voter and, once you vote, your name is marked off and you cannot vote in the same election again. How, then, can you commit that sweet voter fraud?

Option two: ballot fraud

Voter fraud became the cause celebre for conservatives over the past decade and so that’s what’s getting slapped onto President Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. But Trump is actually alleging that there was ballot fraud, which is a slightly different kettle of goats.

To commit ballot fraud, you need to be part of the machinery of the election and not just Joe Voter (or Joe Fakevoter or whatever). You’ll need to be involved in the administration of the election, the counting of the ballots, or – ideally – both.

Here, you can simply inject new ballots into the process when you want your candidate to win. Jane Politician is losing to her opponent? Look, I just found a box of Jane Politician votes. You can circumvent pesky voter ID laws and even pesky voter registries altogether, because you’re the authority. You say these ballots are valid, so they’re valid.

Hell, if you control the balloting and the counting, who cares if there even are ballots? Just start adding numbers to the candidate you want to see win. It’s easy, peasy, Georgia peachy.

You will have to control the observers, though. See, each political party is entitled to observe the counting to make sure the process is fair. Observers aren’t allowed to interfere in the process but they can take notes and make reports which could allow their party or candidates to file legal action. You’d need to make it so you could control the observers, because they can kick up a stink if they see anything. Hell, even if they don’t see anything, they can kick up a stink, and might even claim they’re not being allowed to observe even though they are.

An easier form of ballot fraud is to suppress ballots you don’t like. The easiest way to do this is to “lose” ballots from areas you think your opponent will win. Of course, if those areas appear underrepresented, journalists and political officials might catch you, so you could try double counting some ballots, although most states have a system to match ballots to the person who cast them, so double counting is virtually impossible even if someone votes twice.

There are easier ways

There are easier ways to rig elections, though. Closing polling places where your opponent is more popular than you seems to be very effective. You could also institute a mandatory voter ID law but then close ID-issuing offices in areas where members of the other political party live. You could redraw political districts to favor your party and disadvantage the other party. You could use the presidency to project power in a way your opponent can’t. You could even install political lackeys in the Supreme Court who pen opinions supporting greater judicial involvement in American elections.

These don’t require you to get your hands dirty falsifying ballots or trying to fudge election results. Instead, you can claim that you’re just implementing the law, that this is actually better than the alternative, somehow. If you do it right, you’ll be able to coast through election after election, even if the other party keeps winning way more votes than you do. All without a single fake ballot or dead voter in sight.