Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic
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Kristan Small holds a flag in honor of her father, a veteran who died after contracting COVID-19. As President Trump made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, Small joined a small crowd at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing to call for the complete counting of votes in the U.S. election.

Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic

Voter fraud used to be rampant. Now it’s an anomaly.

Gone are the days when bribes and voting by voice were commonplace at the polls. Today secret ballots and improved security measures have largely ensured fair outcomes in elections.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, President Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of litigation to review results in battleground states while also making unsubstantiated claims that the election was tainted by "tremendous corruption and fraud."

Trump’s campaign has filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona—states where President-elect Joe Biden garnered more votes. (Since 1848, the Associated Press has declared the winner after tallying votes counted by local and state officials; today, those painstaking vote counts, along with modern analytical modeling tools, enable the nonpartisan, nonprofit news cooperative and TV networks to project a winner.) Trump’s lawsuits challenge aspects of voting from how long mail-in ballots can be accepted after Election Day to whether states properly verified the voter identities for mail-in ballots. Attorney General William Barr has also authorized U.S. attorneys to investigate any “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities.

Election officials in every state and from both political parties contacted by the New York Times have reported they had no evidence of fraud or irregularities affecting the outcome of the election. Experts predict Trump’s lawsuits have little chance of success—but some fear they will undermine public trust in the electoral process itself.

“It delegitimizes the electoral process to no end because there’s nothing to [the claims],” says John Mark Hansen, political science professor at the University of Chicago.

If any voter fraud did take place in 2020, it would have been an anomaly. Though rampant in the 19th and early 20th centuries, electoral fraud has become rare with the advent of stronger voter protections. Here's how voter fraud was perpetrated in the past—and why it has all but faded away.

Political bosses and party machines

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, powerful networks known as political machines typically controlled local votes, through cronyism, bribes, and an ability to get out the vote—consolidating political, social, and financial power in the hands of a few.

In New York City, the Democratic Tammany Hall machine came to dominate urban life in the mid-1800s. In a city with few social services and a weak local government, Tammany Hall was omnipresent; party bosses wielded the power to arrange citizenship for newly arrived immigrants, provided assistance during emergencies, and connected people with employment opportunities. In exchange, it expected voters to elect candidates who would help maintain its power—and used fraud and muscle to ensure loyalty.

The machine threw enormous pre-election parties, plying voters with food and drink. On Election Day, they encouraged residents to vote multiple times by shaving their beards a little each time they went to the polls in order to hide their identities. The machine also registered voters under fake names—and Tammany thugs threatened to beat voters who did not comply.

Election fraud was so prevalent then that it spawned its own vocabulary—“floaters” were people who cast ballots for more than one party and “repeaters” were those who voted multiple times. Attempts to thwart the tactics became part of both parties' strategy. In 1888, rival Republican Senator Matthew Quay outsmarted Tammany Hall when he quietly canvassed the entire metropolis under the guise of creating a "city directory." He amassed a complete record of residents, which he later used to deter fraudulent voting.

Political trickery wasn’t limited to cities, Hansen says. “Back in the bad old days, parties also cheated in the suburbs and rural areas. They were just as corrupt.”

Machine politics and election shenanigans originated partly because party operatives knew who had cast ballots and for whom they voted. As late as the mid-19th century, seven states employed voice voting, a system in which citizens read their choices out loud due to high illiteracy rates. Parties even produced ballots themselves, and ballot box stuffing and ballot tampering were rampant. States began to adopt the secret ballot in the 1880s, when Progressive-era activists pushed for reforms, and continued to do so into the 20th century.

Voter fraud—and suppression—in the Jim Crow South

While the secret ballot was the beginning of the end for party bosses in northern cities, intimidation and fraud at the ballot box persisted in the Jim Crow South as tools of voter suppression. (Why voter suppression has haunted America since it was founded.)

Formerly enslaved people were given the right to vote during Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period during which the federal government attempted to reintegrate southern states into the Union and ensure they upheld the rights of their Black citizens. Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment forbade explicitly disenfranchising any citizen on the basis of race or former enslavement.

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Police officers attack civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, as they attempted a 50-mile march to the state capital in Montgomery in 1965 to protest racial discrimination in voter registration. Intimidation and fraud were among the tools that were used to prevent Black citizens from voting.

But as Black voters throughout the South attempted to exercise their new voting rights, they were often subject to mob violence and lynching. In the 1876 election, disenfranchisement sparked a constitutional crisis. When Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, there were widespread accusations of voter intimidation, fraudulent ballots, ballot box stuffing, and even Republican voters being denied boxes in which to put their votes—a move directed at Black voters, who at the time predominantly voted Republican.

Eventually Congress stepped in to create a one-time electoral commission to resolve the contested race. In exchange for a promise to withdraw federal troops from southern states—a formal end to Reconstruction—Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the three states’ 19 electoral votes and became president.

The Compromise of 1877, as it was known, ended federal oversight of elections in the former Confederacy—and ushered in a new era of voter fraud.

In the words of U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith, who in 2011 conducted a sweeping survey of the history of voter suppression in the South, common tactics included "theft of ballot boxes; removal of polls to unknown places; burning ballots before elections; illegal arrests on election day; importation of voters who did not live in the precinct; calling off names wrongly; fabricating reasons to refuse to hold elections in precincts populated with blacks; the voting of dead or fictitious persons; ensuring that poll watchers and ballot counters became drunk while votes were counted; and organizing ‘disorderly demonstrations’ to intimidate voters."

Starting in the 1870s, southern states also began making voting impossible for Black citizens through Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of society. Poll taxes, literacy requirements, confusing tests, and state-sanctioned violence became the norm—and the number of Black voters dwindled. (How Jim Crow laws created “slavery by another name.”)

It would take decades of struggle, protest, and eventually federal intervention to restore the franchise to Black voters in the segregated South with the1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Modern safeguards against voter intimidation, electioneering, and fraud

Today each state restricts electioneering in the vicinity of active polling places, and state and federal statutes prohibit voter intimidation and election malfeasance, which come with harsh criminal penalties and the possibility of up to five years of imprisonment.

Voters who speak languages other than English were once duped by deceptive ballots handed out by rival political parties. Now voting materials are available in a variety of languages. Voting systems are tested and certified before elections, and election workers are trained in everything from cybersecurity to chain of custody rules that require them to log the movements of all ballots and election equipment.

"Voter fraud is sufficiently rare that it simply could not and does not happen at the rate even approaching that which would be required to 'rig' an election," writes the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In a 2007 analysis of the returns from states where fraud was alleged in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Brennan Center found incident rates of between .0003 and .0025 percent—meaning a voter had a higher likelihood of being struck by lightning (or a car on the way to the polling place). Instances of double voting, ballots cast by ineligible voters, or registrations with flawed addresses did exist, though they were rare and most of the alleged “fraud” came down to human error.

While voter fraud is no longer widely used as a means to suppress the vote as it was in the Jim Crow South, it is now sometimes used as justification for laws that effectively bar some from the polls.

“Instead of inflating the vote by stuffing the ballot box or having people vote repeatedly,” says Hansen, “you [keep] your opponent away from the polls.”

Voter ID laws, which have been around since 1950 but gained steam in this century, are often invoked as an example. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Voting Rights Act that gave the federal government oversight over new voting laws in areas with histories of voter discrimination. Five years after the decision, a nonpartisan federal commission found that at least 23 states had enacted "newly restrictive statewide voter laws.” Most involved voter ID requirements, which proponents say protect against fraud but studies show reduces turnout. A 2006 Brennan Center survey found that up to 11 percent of American voters lack IDs, and the fees, logistics and travel involved in obtaining one can deter some voters. (How the Voting Rights Act was why—and why it's under fire today.)

The laws can have a disproportionate impact on voters of color; this year, one study found that strict photo ID laws suppressed voter turnout in racially diverse counties, as compared to predominantly white ones nationwide. As of April 2020, reports Ballotpedia, 34 states enforced or were on track to enforce voter identification requirements.

Voter fraud and the 2020 election

The mere mention of voter fraud can be used to sow uncertainty in an election's fairness, even in an age of stronger-than-ever protections.

President Trump had already invoked the specter of fraud in the run-up to Election Day, claiming without evidence that mail-in voting would lead to a rigged election through attempts to discard, sell, or cast multiple ballots.

In response to President Trump’s statements in the aftermath of the election—and their amplification on social media—public trust in the integrity of the election has tumbled. In a Morning Consult poll conducted between November 6 and 9, seven in 10 Republicans said the 2020 election was "not free and fair," and overall trust in elections by Republicans fell from 68 percent to just 34 percent. (The election is over. See photos of America's divided reaction.)

Hansen says that stealing or rigging an election would take flawless planning—and extraordinarily good luck. “It defies credulity that this would be done on a mass scale,” he says. And, he points out, widespread fraud wouldn’t necessarily skew an election toward one party.

The allegations of fraud, Hansen says, are “basically tearing down an institution on the basis of nothing whatsoever. A lot of thought has been given as to how to make the election process secure and fair.”