The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported this morning that the Palm Beach County Republican Party has filed voter fraud complaints with several Florida agencies, including the Division of Elections and the State Attorney General. The GOP group alleges that 60 people appear to have double-voted, casting ballots in both Florida and New York during last year's election.
This is something we've seen before--allegations of voter fraud leading to amateur investigations using only rudimentary list-matching techniques to "prove" double-registration and double-voting. Yet time after time, the most thorough investigations across entire states have come up with only a handful of instances of true voter misconduct.
In this case, the Sun-Sentinel admits that since the Palm Beach County GOP's list was released, several people have called in to the paper, denying that they had in fact voted twice in 2006. Shirley Goldberg, a retiree in Delray Beach, said, "I registered and voted in New York when I lived there. But I've been here for the last 12 years. I haven't voted in New York since."
It is important that we safeguard our elections against individual voter fraud, but it is also crucial that we don't jump at shadows and see voter fraud behind every rock. The citizen investigators in Florida checked the full names and birth dates of citizens who registered and voted in Palm Beach County against a list of New York State voters. Yet our research has shown that matching information from list to list can be full of pitfalls. Many instances of apparent fraud have been caused by administrative errors.
Large databases, like voter registration rolls, are vulnerable to human error. For example, the Social Security Administration's "Master Death Index" is known to have an error rate of more than 3%! Inaccuracies in the names or birthdates of voters on the rolls in New York and Palm Beach County could have produced a false match.
The databases could also be missing important information that is not evident at first glance. Some databases substitute generic information when a digit is missing - such as January 1, 1980 for someone who only provided January, 1980 as their birthday on a standardized form. This would increase the likelihood that the analysis found a false match.
Finally, it is statistically likely that a few of the people matched correctly by name and birthday could be separate people. In a group of just 23 people, it is more likely than not that two will share the same month and day of birth. With such significant populations of registered voters (800,000 in Palm Beach County and 11 million in New York), there could be two people registered with the same name and birthday.
Over the years, most of the vivid anecdotes of purported voter fraud have been proven false or do not actually demonstrate fraud. Individual voter fraud is both irrational, because of its stiff penalties, and extremely rare. It is crucial that we conduct impartial, nonpartisan investigations to debunk wholesale claims of fraud.
For more information on allegations of voter fraud, visit the Brennan Center Investigator's Guide to Voter Fraud and our Truth About Fraud website.