In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: which is more likely to happen – getting struck by lightning or committing in-person voter impersonation? This is The Two Minute Drill for April 15, 2016.
Yesterday (April 14), the Democratic National Committee, along with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, sued the state of Arizona following complaints of voter suppression during the Arizona primary last month. Some voters who were registered Democrat in the past were not able to vote in the Arizona primary, which is a closed primary, likely due to a massive voter purge conducted in the state. In addition, hundreds of voters were still standing in line when the Associated Press projected Clinton as the winner in the Democratic primary, with some voters forced to wait five hours before they could vote. This was mainly a problem in Maricopa County, where Republican county officials decided to save money by cutting down on the number of polling stations for the primary. In the 2012 presidential primary, Maricopa County had 200-plus polling locations.
This year, they only had 60.
The actions taken by Arizona Republicans – which have the effect of disenfranchising thousands of voters – have swept through Republican legislatures since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Their purported rationale is to combat “voter fraud.” The most recent warning about the scourge of “voter fraud” came from Republican Gov. Greg Abbot from Texas, who recently claimed “the fact is voter fraud is rampant.”
Is Abbot – and by extension, the Republican Party – right on this issue? Is voter fraud really a problem in American elections? (Hint: not even remotely)
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Here’s one way to answer that question, in the words of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in 2015: “Take Texas, for example, where Lyndon Johnson’s obviously from, they passed these voter ID laws. In the decade before it, 10 years, they only prosecute two people for in-person voter ID, only two people. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas than to find any kind of voter fraud.”
That’s quite a colorful comparison. But while it sounds a lot like the hyperbolic language that we’ve come to expect from politicians, it turns out that it’s not. Lightning really is more likely to strike in Texas than people trying to cast ballots using fake identities.
Here are the facts.
According to the National Weather Service, lightning kills an average of 49 people in the United States each year, and the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 960,000. Between 1959 and 2013, Texas had the second-highest number of lightning-related fatalities, behind only Florida. That’s mostly because Texas is enormous, both in terms of area (268,597 square miles) and population (27,469,114 people, as of 2015). Adjusted for the size of Texas and its population, the probability of being struck by lightning in Texas is slightly lower, around 1 in 1.35 million.
So, how does the 1 in 1.35 million chance compare to the rate of voter fraud in Texas?
First, an important definition.
Voter ID laws only target one type of voter fraud: voter impersonation. Therefore, for our purposes here, voter fraud refers only to “the intentional corruption of the electoral process by voters. This covers knowingly and willingly giving false information to establish voter eligibility, and knowingly and willingly illegally or participating in a conspiracy to encourage illegal voting by others,” as stated by Lorraine Minnite in her book, The Myth of Voter Fraud.
How prevalent is this type of fraud? Since 2000, there have been only three credible allegations of fraud in Texas that could have been prevented by an ID rule, according to Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Over the same period, there have been roughly 72 million votes cast (though that’s probably an underestimate), according to the Texas Secretary of State’s online record.
Three cases of voter fraud out of 72 million votes makes the chance of voter fraud in Texas 1 in 18 million. So, Sen. Booker was right. “You are more likely to get struck by lightning in Texas” than to find in-person voter fraud.
Nationally, the ratio is even bigger. According to a comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation, there have been only 31 credible incidents of fraud from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.
Word Count: 461
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity. Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump are running as candidates who will shake up the status quo. This fact is made clear by their tax plans. Read the Column for April 12, 2016.