Conservative supporters of voting restrictions think they’ve found the holy grail in North Carolina: A genuine case of massive voter fraud that can be used to justify efforts to make it harder to vote.
The reality, of course, is far less clear. Non-partisan election experts are already pouring cold water on the claims, noting that other recent allegations of major voting irregularities have fizzled upon closer scrutiny.
In a report released Wednesday, North Carolina’s elections board said it had found 35,570 people who voted in the state in 2012 and whose names and dates of birth match those of voters in other states. The board said it also found 765 North Carolinians who voted in 2012 and whose names, birthdates, and last four digits of their Social Security number match those of people in other states. The board said it’s looking into all these cases to determine whether people voted twice.
There’s a lot riding on what the board finds.
North Carolina Republicans last year passed a sweeping and restrictive voting law, which is currently being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department. The law’s voter ID provision would likely have done nothing to stop the double voting being alleged here, but solid evidence of illegal voting could still bolster the state’s case that the measure is justified. It could also make it easier for the state to remove from the rolls voters who are thought to be registered in two states—raising concerns that legitimate voters could wrongly be purged.
But Republicans and conservative media, predictably, aren’t waiting for the results of the probe. Instead, they’re already shouting voter fraud. “N.C. Board of Elections audit finds up to 35,750 instances of ‘double voting’ (voter fraud) in the 2012 election,” tweeted Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer Wednesday. A headline at National Review made the same claim. In a statement, state Sen. Thom Tillis, the frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination, pointed to "alarming evidence of voter error [and] fraud."
The notion that the board found over 35,000 cases of voter fraud—or even one case—is flatly false. With the investigation not yet even underway, the board, headed by Kim Strach, hasn’t come close to concluding that any specific case involved double voting.* And there are very good reasons why it's held off.
First, it helps to understand statistics. The political scientist Michael McDonald and election law scholar Justin Levitt have shown in a detailed statistical study that the number of people who share a name and birthdate is much higher than it might at first appear. (Just for fun, take the RNC’s Spicer. Though his name is less common than many, online records show 20 different Sean Spicers who were born on September 23rd, his birthday.) That statistical reality, McDonald and Levitt conclude, has big implications for how to treat potential cases of illegal voting.
“I would be very interested indeed in how many of the 35K alleged double voters are the results of mistakes or mistaken assumptions,” Levitt wrote Wednesday in an email to a group of election lawyers. “I'm going to bet on the vast majority evaporating upon closer scrutiny.”
But that still leaves those 765 cases—not as eye-popping a number as 35,000, but still significant—in which the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number also matched that of someone who voted in another state. Statistically, the chances of a false positive are much, much smaller under this scenario.
Even here, though, there are plenty of explanations beyond deliberate fraud. Election experts point to the high frequency of data errors by poll-workers, a possibility that doubles, of course, when matching voters across two states.
Consider the recent experience of North Carolina’s southern neighbor. Last year, South Carolina’s DMV used Social Security matches to help find more than 900 people listed as dead who had voted in recent years, setting off a spate of hand-wringing about fraud. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, used the findings to argue for the state's strict voter ID law—which was later softened after the Justice Department objected. But state law enforcement ultimately found not a single person who deliberately cast a ballot in the name of a dead person.
Nearly half the cases were the result of clerical errors by poll-workers. Others were attributed to DMV officials finding that Social Security numbers matched but not making sure that names did, among several problems. (About 45,370 people have been assigned by the Social Security Administration to each four-digit combination of numbers.)
"I am banking on poll-worker error for data entry on who voted for many of those," Levitt told msnbc. "It may be that there are a handful that are actually double votes." He estimated that number in the single digits.
Still, North Carolina’s findings may highlight a less spectacular flaw in our voting system: the awful state of our voter rolls, which contain numerous duplicates, deceased voters, and voters who have since moved out of state. A recent bipartisan presidential report called for an aggressive effort to clean up the rolls.
While Republicans swiftly denounced the breadth of that report, there is general agreement in both parties that voters rolls do need to be cleaned up. The issue is how to go about it. In Florida and Virginia lately, scores of legitimate voters have been wrongly purged, after election officials used a flawed system that generated the same kind of false positives that may be in evidence in North Carolina. That’s why voting rights advocates fear that, with many efforts to remove voters from the rolls, the medicine can be worse than the cure.
In North Carolina, that will depend on just how many of the cases the board found ultimately hold up. And on that score, Levitt isn’t the only election expert who’s expressing skepticism.
“There's no guarantee that the North Carolina story will follow the multi-step pattern of: 1) big initial number; 2) partisan outrage; 3) further investigation; 4) much smaller actual number; 5) partisan indifference,” Doug Chapin, who as the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, is among the country’s foremost experts on running elections, wrote online. “But in my experience, that's the way to bet.”
This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version which said that N.C. Board of Elections director Kim Strach is a Republican. In fact, she is officially unaffiliated, though she was the choice of the Republican-controlled board.