Here's how voter fraud once tipped an election — and why that doesn't happen very often

From the outset, it was a spirited battle between two Cuban-born politicians with deep roots in the city. But the 1997 Miami mayoral race ended in shame, becoming one of the worst cases of voter fraud in the country.

At the time, Mayor Joe Carollo was seeking a second term and faced a challenge from Xavier Suarez, the city’s first Cuban mayor, who had served in the 1980s and was waging a political comeback. That November, Suarez defeated Carollo in a runoff election. Yet something was amiss.

Carollo’s campaign, heeding tips from local political operatives, claimed that absentee ballots in the runoff were forged and even paid for by representatives of the Suarez campaign. An investigation found nearly 400 fraudulent absentee ballots were cast by, among others, dead people and felons.

“This scheme to defraud, literally and figuratively, stole the ballot from the hands of every honest voter in the city of Miami,” said Circuit Court Judge Thomas S. Wilson Jr. in his ruling at the time. Wilson, who ruled that no evidence was presented to indicate that Suarez knew about the fraud, threw out the results of the election, leaving the city with an interim mayor for several weeks in spring 1998.

Eventually, Carollo returned to his position as mayor, and about 20 people — many from Suarez’s campaign — were arrested.

While the Miami case involved manipulation of absentee ballots —  not noncitizens voting or people faking their identity at the polls, which have been the main focus of Republican-led efforts to crack down on voter fraud — it was among the most egregious examples of voter fraud to date.

It was also rare. Nationwide, studies show, voter fraud is almost nonexistent.

This week, President Trump — without providing evidence  — said that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes were cast in the November presidential election. White House officials said the claim was based on studies and evidence presented to the president.

“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

The statement from Trump led to a strong rebuke by some in his party.

Jon Husted, a Republican who is Ohio’s top elections official, said his state investigated voter fraud in past elections and came up with nothing.

“We conducted a review 4 years ago in Ohio & already have a statewide review of 2016 election underway. Easy to vote, hard to cheat #Ohio,” he tweeted.

Earlier this week, in response to multiple questions about Trump’s unproven claims, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said a Pew Center study had shown that 14% of people who voted in 2008 were noncitizens. But there is no such Pew study.

Pew did find in 2012 that 1.8 million deceased individuals were still listed as voters, and that 2.75 million people were registered to vote in multiple states. But it found no evidence that false votes were cast.

“Are there occasional, isolated incidents of fraud? Yes,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in election law. “But it’s in small-scale local elections and rare.… I’ve seen no factual evidence about President Trump’s claims.” 

Indeed, Levitt recently conducted a comprehensive report into voter fraud that is widely cited by scholars. He found 31 credible instances between 2000 and 2014 of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes cast. He examined ballots from every federal election in that time frame.

In 2007, the Bush administration released a five-year investigation into voter fraud that turned up nothing.

“This claim that millions of people are voting illegally, that’s just ludicrous,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at UC Irvine and has studied voter fraud. 

That Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.9 million ballots may help explain why he seems to have such a strong interest in persuading people that millions of illegal ballots were cast.

Others believe Trump is attempting to influence future voting laws.

“It’s clear President Trump is amplifying a false message of voter fraud in an effort to encourage a policy agenda that will silence voters who may disagree with him,” said Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “His claims are to stimulate lawmakers to move forward in introducing voter suppression laws like voter ID,  even though several federal courts have found these tactics to be discriminatory.”

So far, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. 

In Des Moines, local authorities caught a woman attempting to vote twice for Trump. Also, in a case recalling the 1997 mayoral controversy, two women were charged with election fraud in Miami-Dade County after they allegedly altered absentee ballots and submitted false voter registration applications. Most of the fraudulent ballots were cast for a Republican in a local race.

Researchers at Dartmouth College are currently conducting an extensive study of abnormal voting patterns in the 2016 election. They looked into voting by noncitizens and dead people, among other things. So far, they have come up with nothing. 

In October, weeks before the election, the National Assn. of Secretaries of State, which consists of a bipartisan group of top elections officials from around the country, issued a statement pushing back against Trump’s claims of a “rigged” election. 

This week they issued a follow-up statement to address Trump’s claims. Their response? 

“Secretaries of state expressed their confidence in the systemic integrity of our election process as a bipartisan group, and they stand behind that statement today,” the group said. 

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