The Florida voter fraud allegations, explained

There is no evidence of voter fraud in Florida. But as Republicans face the increasing possibility that last week’s midterm elections didn’t turn out as great for them as they initially thought, GOP officials are claiming voter fraud anyway.

Over the past week, the vote count has narrowed in Florida’s gubernatorial and Senate races. On Wednesday morning, Republican Ron DeSantis led Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race by nearly 72,000 votes, and Republican Rick Scott led Democrat Bill Nelson by around 51,000 votes. That’s now changed: In the final count, DeSantis only led Gillum by less than 34,000 votes, and Scott led Nelson by less than 13,000 votes. Both of the tallies are close enough that a recount is underway — and a recount could very well flip the results.

As the gap between the candidates shrank further and further, several Republicans, including President Donald Trump; Rick Scott, who’s currently governor of Florida; and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have suggested that voter fraud is involved. They’ve presented zero evidence for these claims, but the claims have taken off as the risk of Republicans losing grows.

“Rick Scott was up by 50,000+ votes on Election Day, now they ‘found’ many votes and he is only up 15,000 votes,” Trump tweeted. “‘The Broward [County] Effect.’ How come they never find Republican votes?”

Republicans have particularly focused on the election results in Broward County and Palm Beach County, which were slow to report their vote counts and, therefore, had the most eyes on them as the gap between Republicans and Democrats narrowed. Protesters have also appeared across the counties calling for a fair, legal vote count.

Still, there is no evidence of voter fraud. It’s normal, especially in close elections, for results to change as more votes are counted. Particularly toward the end of a count, counties with larger populations may start getting to the last few votes, provisional ballots can be verified, and mail-in ballots can be tabulated. If these ballots happen to lean toward a certain party or candidate, then that party or candidate will see a net gain in votes. That seems to be what happened in Florida.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any problems. Going back to the 2000 presidential election (which came down to a small number of votes in Florida), heightened scrutiny of close Florida elections has repeatedly revealed big issues with how elections are conducted there.

But these problems are, as seems to be true in 2018, about human error and incompetence, not any apparent incidents of voter fraud. In an effort to win public opinion and the courts, though, Republicans are trying to call the integrity of the elections into question — and skew the outcome in their favor.

There is no evidence of fraud or criminal activity in Florida

Again: There is zero evidence of fraud so far in Florida, including in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, has not received any credible allegations of fraud or criminal activity. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is not investigating the midterm elections, because there simply aren’t any credible allegations.

Meanwhile, election monitors with the Florida Department of Elections, who were deployed in Broward County for the midterms, have found no evidence of fraud, Sarah Blaskey and David Smiley reported for the Miami Herald. “Our staff has seen no evidence of criminal activity at this time,” a Department of Elections spokesperson told the Herald.

And despite Scott’s rhetoric of “rampant fraud,” the lawsuits he’s filed so far haven’t produced any evidence to back up the claim. Instead, several lawsuits tried to force election officials in Broward County and Palm Beach County to be more transparent in how they reported the initial vote count — by, for example, reporting how many ballots needed to be tabulated and letting campaign witnesses be present for the duplication of ballots that were damaged. It’s telling that in the courts, where actual evidence is required, Scott didn’t extend his claims of fraud.

It’s difficult to prove a negative. But right now, there’s no real evidence of fraud. It’s that simple.

There is evidence of incompetence and lack of transparency

The lack of evidence for fraud does not at all mean that elections in Florida have all gone smoothly. Far from it. From mix-ups with ballots to lapses in transparency, plenty has gone wrong — at times in violation of state legal requirements for public records and elections.

Here are some of the major problems reported, going back to the 2016 election:

  1. Last week, a court found that Broward County election officials violated the state’s law and constitution by failing to provide public records to Scott’s campaign for the total number of votes cast for the midterm election and how many ballots still needed to be counted.
  2. A court also ruled last week that Palm Beach County election officials erred when they unilaterally duplicated ballots that were improperly filled, and that officials should have first turned over the ballots to the canvassing board for verification instead.
  3. Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes acknowledged that her office had accidentally mixed more than a dozen rejected ballots with more than 200 valid ballots. All of the ballots had to be counted in the end, but the number of erroneous ballots is so small that it’s very unlikely to impact any election either way.
  4. Some out-of-state voters from Florida have said that they never received their absentee ballots, leading to Democratic accusations of suppression and disenfranchisement.
  5. Last week, a court also granted Democrats’ request that Palm Beach County officials hand over a list of people who cast provisional ballots — which will allow them to follow up with those voters and potentially help them verify their ballots so they’re counted.
  6. More than 260 ballots were delayed in a mail sorting facility in Miami-Dade County and won’t be counted as a result. Democrats argue that this is evidence that not all votes are being counted in Florida.
  7. In August, a court found that Broward elections staff were wrongly opening mail-in ballots in private without verification from the local canvassing board that the ballots were properly cast.
  8. In May, a court declared that Snipes had illegally destroyed physical ballots for a 2016 race, while preserving the ballots digitally, despite ongoing court battles that might have forced an inspection of the physical ballots. The court’s ruling led the Florida Department of State to send election monitors to Broward County for this year’s general election.
  9. An affidavit filed in court alleged that a fired poll worker in 2016 — not 2018 — saw other workers fill out ballots shortly before Election Day. But it’s possible that the officials were merely filling out duplicates of ballots, which they have to do if, for example, the original ballots are damaged.

The number of reported problems could grow as lawyers and officials from both parties continue scrutinizing Florida for any irregularities in an attempt to swing the election to their side.

There is a difference, though, between fraud and incompetence. One is about deliberately rigging the election, while the other can come down to mistakes, however serious. Fraud would also benefit one candidate or party over the other, but incompetence can hurt both — and in this case, it appears to have hurt both parties in different ways.

Errors can still be concerning. But it’s a different kind of concerning than election fraud.

But with tensions and emotions high, any evidence of a mishap is being interpreted in the worst possible way. Republicans have latched onto the errors to declare fraud, even though there’s no evidence that any of the troubling incidents involve fraud in any way. Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed to several other issues to claim that votes are being suppressed.

Most of these problems come down to Broward County, Palm Beach County, and, to a lesser extent, Miami-Dade County because these are highly populated parts of the state and go for Democrats — meaning they could determine the outcome of elections.

It comes down to a simple calculation: The more votes there are in these Democratic-leaning counties, the more likely Democrats are to win the election. So Republicans claim fraud, attempting to get fewer votes counted as legitimate — particularly through lawsuits and other legal maneuvers. And Democrats push back by claiming suppression, arguing, also in court, that Republicans are trying to block the voters’ will and that all votes should be counted.

Ultimately, then, this comes down to trying to win the election. The problems listed above are just ammunition for that battle, spun by each side in different ways to create a favorable narrative in public opinion and the courts.

Still, Republicans are reaching by claiming voter fraud when there’s no evidence to support that claim.

Voter fraud is extremely rare in America

One reason to doubt that any voter fraud is happening, beyond the lack of evidence: Voter fraud is extremely rare in America.

There have been multiple investigations — by academics, journalists, and nonpartisan think tanks — into voter fraud. None have found evidence of fraud swinging any federal elections.

A 2012 investigation by the News21 journalism project looked at all kinds of voter fraud nationwide, including voter impersonation, people voting twice, vote buying, absentee fraud, and voter intimidation. It confirmed that voter impersonation was extremely rare, with just 10 credible cases — as other research has confirmed.

But the other types of fraud weren’t common either: In total, the project uncovered 2,068 alleged election fraud cases from 2000 through part of 2012, covering a time span when more than 620 million votes were cast in national general elections alone. That represents about 0.000003 alleged cases of fraud for every vote cast, and 344 fraud cases per national general election, in each of which between 80 million and 135 million people voted. The number of fraudulent votes was a drop in the bucket.

What’s more, not all — maybe not even half — of these alleged fraud cases were credible, News21 found: “Of reported election-fraud allegations in the database whose resolution could be determined, 46 percent resulted in acquittals, dropped charges or decisions not to bring charges.”

Yet Republicans have long been quick to claim voter fraud, typically to argue for new voting restrictions like voter ID and early voting cuts.

The claims, however, seem to be more about suppressing minority and low-income voters, who tend to vote Democrat, than preventing voter fraud. For example, minority and low-income voters may not have the means of transportation or flexible work hours to obtain a specific voter ID, or may rely more on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot. As one federal court concluded, North Carolina’s Republican-backed voting restrictions “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

In fact, some Republicans have repeatedly admitted that their claims about voter fraud are political. As longtime North Carolina Republican consultant Carter Wrenn in 2016 told the Washington Post, “Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was.”

Wrenn’s comment exposes the truth here: The concern isn’t actual voter fraud. It’s creating a favorable political environment.

A similar story is now playing out in Florida. As Republican officials attempt to win court battles about which ballots should be counted, they are claiming voter fraud without any evidence. And while no voter fraud may have actually happened, the claims let them push efforts to, potentially, refuse to count certain votes in Democratic-leaning counties — which could skew the elections in Republicans’ favor.

In other words, the voter fraud claims aren’t about voter fraud at all, but about winning the election by any means necessary.