Quotes from Experts

Voter fraud and ballot security

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November 2, 2022


How common is voting fraud in the U.S., and what are the major categories of fraud?


Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.

“Voter fraud occurs whenever someone casts a ballot that violates election law. Confirmed cases of voter fraud are rare. Less than one in a million ballots cast are later found to be fraudulent.

“A common kind of reported voter fraud happens when someone casts a ballot but is not actually eligible to vote. They might be ineligible because they are voting in the wrong district, or they might be a convicted felon in a state where convicted felons cannot vote. Or they cast a ballot for someone who is ineligible to vote or is deceased.

“Other kinds of reported voter fraud occur when someone improperly registers to vote, incorrectly obtains or mails in an absentee ballot, votes more than once, or buys theirselves a vote.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of statistics, George Mason University

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.

“Actually voting fraud is not that common in the United States. And back from 2000-2012, there were only 491 cases out of literally billions of votes cast. And in 2020 we saw just about three cases, for example, in Pennsylvania. Fraud is a really broad term, and that term has actually become politicized. There’s really two ways to look at voting error. The first one is those who intend harm, or actually to disrupt the process or cheat in actual fraud sense. And then the other piece of this is those who just have pure voter errors and just make mistakes when they are casting their ballot.

“My research looks into voter error as the general term—nonpoliticized, nonpartisan research. And we find that voting error can actually happen more frequently than voter fraud. And some states make it easier or more straightforward to vote for others, which has less chances of making actually making mistakes when it’s easier to vote.

“Some of the examples of voter error that we find are failure to sign the ballot, signature mismatches, failure to meet time requirements, selection errors, voter ID issues, as well. So my research has shown that there’s very few ways to actually attack mail voting or cause an issue with mail voting in terms of voter error. There’s actually less than 10 ways to do it overall. And the relative likelihood of those scenarios happening is really quite low. And different counties and states have had mitigations in place for years to catch any potential issues that may occur.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.
Associate professor of business analytics and technology management, Towson University

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.

“We don’t really know how common voting fraud is in the U.S. What we do know is that there were a number of lawsuits—I think 60 lawsuits—filed in the prior election alleging voting fraud, and they were all dismissed. So we’re relatively confident that voting fraud is not significant enough to change the outcomes of elections. We also know there is some voting fraud, in particular there appears to be behavior called vote harvesting, which is where these harvesters collect together vote-by-mail, postal mail ballots and make sure that they’re marked correctly and violate these voters’ privacy, and those ballots can then be aggregately voted for a particular candidate. There have been a small number of convictions around this sort of behavior. And, again, to the best of our knowledge, this does not appear to be something that is significant enough to have changed the outcomes of any major elections.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.
Professor of computer science, Rice University

What are the methods used to quantify voter fraud and how reliable are they?


Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.

“Voter fraud is a crime, and criminal activity is typically measured by the number of complaints or the number of criminal convictions. But not all crimes are equally likely to be reported and prosecuted. Competitive elections are more likely to be scrutinized, and as a result fraud is more likely to be reported.

“It’s important to note that the number of reported voter fraud cases can provide a misleading picture of election security, and that’s because election laws vary from state to state, and even from election to election. States have enacted more than 3,500 election laws since 2010. These laws change who can vote, how they can vote, and how voter fraud is identified and prosecuted. So higher fraud rates might not reflect increased election vulnerability, but increased voter confusion, a closer scrutiny of voting systems, or more aggressive prosecution. Efforts to quantify election security should account for these changes. So, for example, in a recent study we found that when fair comparisons between states and elections were made, voting by mail was actually associated with lower rates of reported fraud.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of statistics, George Mason University

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.

“My research paper developed a relative likelihood assessment for risks to mail voting. So all that means is we compare the different risks or things that could go wrong and see, among that list, which ones were the threats of most concern. This paper has been peer-reviewed and published in the Risk Analysis journal, which is a top-tier journal in its field. And what we also found in the research is that the quick scale-up of mail voting that we saw during 2020 actually did not make the process less secure. It did not introduce more issues with the process.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.
Associate professor of business analytics and technology management, Towson University

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.

“It’s very difficult to quantify voter fraud, because, by definition, it’s something that’s illegal and often hidden. So what we can do is try to say that certain elections had unusual or unexpected outcomes. Say, well, the pre-election polling suggested a certain point margin, and the actual outcome was quite different from that. But sometimes voters change their minds. Sometimes polls are inaccurate. So saying that an election outcome doesn’t agree with pre-election polls is not in and of itself evidence of fraud.

“There are certain very specific things, like sometimes when people substitute completely fraudulent numbers for election totals. They’re not very good at making those numbers look as random as they should be. So there are statistical tests that some people have used to try to look for evidence of not-very-random random numbers. In one case there was a political science professor, Walter Mebane, he’s at the University of Michigan now. He was able to find this sort of fraud in Russian elections. And once he published his paper, the Russians rejiggered their numbers to make sure that they all looked better.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.
Professor of computer science, Rice University

Are different types of voting systems more or less susceptible to fraud?


Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.

“Voting systems should not be judged solely on their susceptibility to fraud. By that standard the safest election is the one in which no one votes. A blind fixation on voter fraud leads to policies that unduly suppress voter participation. Which is of course another election crime. The ideal voting system balances election security and accessibility.

“All voting systems can improve security and accessibility by enacting election laws that are simple and easily communicated. Education campaigns should make it clear who can vote and how to legally obtain and cast a ballot.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of statistics, George Mason University

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.

“Our research is data-driven, and it shows that mail voting is not susceptible to fraud. In fact, mail voting increases voter access, and it disincentivizes an adversary or a foreign actor from interference in the process. So this is two big wins for democracy. More people voting and less foreign issues. Many states have moved to paper-trail voting systems for in-person voting, and these are strong mitigations for potential voting issues. Paper ballots create hard records of the vote, while the scanners count it. And then if there are any questions when it’s time to audit the votes or review the votes, a paper ballot is used.

“In 2022, for example, almost 68% of registered voters in America have access to paper ballots as their primary means of voting in person, and that’s according to Verified Voting. And this percentage has gone up over time, which is a really good thing. So the best voting systems we have right now in the U.S. are paper-based systems for in-person voting, as well as mail voting. And both systems actually use good old pen and paper.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.
Associate professor of business analytics and technology management, Towson University

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.

“Every type of voting system has some degree of susceptibility to fraud. And the trick is how well election officials can take process and procedures to mitigate against those risks. For example, paperless electronic voting machines became popular about 20 years ago, and we discovered a large number of security vulnerabilities in those machines. To the best of our knowledge they’ve never been exploited, but nonetheless they have serious vulnerabilities. Those machines have steadily been replaced. All of the new equipment generally involves paper ballots. And when you have paper ballots, whether they’re hand marked or machine marked, now you can have process and procedure to compare those paper ballots to the electronic records and make sure that you have the correct outcome.

“There’s a statistical sampling process called risk-limiting audits that have become increasingly popular, and it’s a very efficient way that you could take a small random sample of ballots, compare the paper and electronic, and gain a strong degree of statistical assurance that you have the correct winner of an election. (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.
Professor of computer science, Rice University

What strategies should states consider to improve the physical security of ballots and election workers?


Natalie Scala, Ph.D.

“One of the strongest mitigation strategies we have is really to stop misinformation. When we consider the physical security of election workers, a lot of this hysteria we’re seeing is being driven by really loud political-based messaging. And some of it, honestly, is fearmongering. And as long as that continues people will have access to incorrect information, whether they seek out that information or they come across it accidentally. But as long as they have access to it, it perpetuates. And the more facts that are out there, the more secure we are.

“In terms of mail balloting, drop boxes are excellent means for collecting mail ballots. We saw in 2020 as well as through our analysis in the research that drop boxes did not increase risk into the process. Meaning it’s totally safe to drop your mail ballot in a drop box. It’s not going to create more issues.

“And our research offers mitigations for mail voting risks. Some of those include ‘notice and cure’ for rejected votes, allowing voters to correct their submission mistakes, enhanced standardized training for among officials, and encouraging voters to monitor the status of their returned ballots.”  (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Natalie Scala, Ph.D.
Associate professor of business analytics and technology management, Towson University

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.

“There is increasing incidence of people harassing poll workers and harassing election officials. We’ve had election officials resign and retire. And it’s just not acceptable. People have their partisan opinions, but there’s no reason you should take that out on election officials or on our volunteer force of poll workers.

“The physical security specifically for the ballots is something that typically involves a variety of different controls, such as making sure you have a member of both parties watching the ballot box as it’s in transit. Sometimes you have tamper-evident seals—that sort of thing. So, we have a notion of chain of custody for the physical ballots, but protecting the poll workers from harassment, that’s a fairly new phenomenon. And each of the different states and counties are working out procedures and policies to help protect their poll workers.” (Posted November 2, 2022 | Download Video)

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.
Professor of computer science, Rice University

Jonathan Auerbach, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of statistics, George Mason University

None.

Natalie M. Scala, Ph.D.
Associate professor of business analytics and technology management, Towson University

None.

Dan Wallach, Ph.D.
Professor of computer science, Rice University

Dr. Wallach is a computer security researcher who specializes in electronic voting systems. He serves as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers representative to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee, which helps specify the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines that voting machines follow (a volunteer position). He has also previously served as a consultant for Free & Fair and VotingWorks, both of which develop open source voting systems (for which he received compensation). Wallach’s current research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and by a gift from Microsoft.