David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

A Logical Take

No, Mail-In Voter Fraud Is Not Rampant. It's Rare.

Failed attempts at voter fraud are not evidence of successful voter fraud.

Posted Oct 22, 2020

According to some, Luzerne county is the key to winning Pennsylvania, and in turn the presidential election. And yesterday, someone in Luzerne was arrested for forgery and election interference. He (according to reporting and the complaint) forged his mother’s name on an absentee ballot application (presumably so he could cast a ballot in her name), citing that she would be gone visiting the great-grandkids during the election. In reality, she died in 2015. 

As anyone paying attention to the news knows, President Trump has been saying that mail-in voting is not secure and that in the upcoming election it will be fraught with “fraud and abuse.” And people may be apt to use the above example as evidence that he is right. In reality, however, successful voter fraud (including by mail) is virtually non-existent, and the above example is actually good evidence that the president’s statements are baseless and false. Why? 

Well, first of all, the accused in this case is registered as a Republican. (Indeed, before yesterday, he flew a Trump flag in front of his house.) Trump is worried that Democrats will forge ballots for Joe Biden, not about his supporters forging ballots for him. So this story cannot be evidence that Trump’s worries about voter fraud are legitimate. 

More importantly, however, this case cannot justify worries about voter fraud because the attempt was thwarted. Unsuccessful attempts at voter fraud, by definition, cannot be evidence of successful attempts at voter fraud. (A thwarted bank robbery is no good reason to think that a successful one happened somewhere else.) To think otherwise commits what is called the fallacy of “missing the point.” 

One misses the point when the premises of one’s argument do support a conclusion, but one draws a similar but unsupported conclusion instead. Take for example this argument: Drunk driving is a serious crime. Right now the penalty is just a fine. But it should be the death penalty! 

The fact that drunk driving is a serious crime, and that it now only incurs a fine, does not justify the conclusion that drunk driving should be punishable by death. These premises, if true, would justify the conclusion that the punishment for drunk driving should be more severe; but that is a totally different conclusion. 

Likewise, an unsuccessful attempt at voter fraud would be evidence that some people are (or at least one is) attempting voter fraud. But it would not be evidence that those attempts, or any such attempts, have been or will be successful. If anything, this unsuccessful attempt serves as evidence of how difficult mail-in-ballot fraud is to pull off, and thus how unlikely any widespread vote-by-mail malfeasance would be. And the same would be true of any other stories of unsuccessfully attempted voter fraud that have been or will be discovered. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some instances of mail-in voter fraud that are going undetected; but we have the above-cited statistical evidence from past elections as evidence against that. Mail-in voter fraud has just never been a problem. And even though there will be more mail-in ballots this year, there is no reason to think that mail-in voter fraud will be any more prevalent than it has been in the past. 

Indeed, just last night, representatives of the FBI (John Ratcliffe and Christopher Wray) tried to assure the nation that, while Iran and Russia had hacked some voter registration information that would make it easier for them to target key voters, the upcoming election will be safe, secure, and fair. “We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our election infrastructure and today, that infrastructure remains resilient," said Wray. "You should be confident that your vote counts. Early, unverified, claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

It’s not clear whether Wray was talking about Trump’s claim about mail-in voter fraud here. It’s also not clear why Ratcliffe said that the emails they identified from Iran were designed to "damage President Trump," when in reality they were threats sent to Democrats to try to blackmail them into voting for Trump(One hopes Ratcliffe's claim was not intended to erroneously bolster Trump's claim that the election is rigged against him.) But the point still stands: Mail-in-voting is safe and secure.  

Now, it's true that everyone should be vigilant about not falling prey to misinformation online, especially propaganda spouted by foreign advisories. There is also legitimate worry that voter intimidation at the polls will keep some people from voting in person. But once all the votes (both in-person and by mail) are cast and counted, there will be no good reason to think the result is fraudulent.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson