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Hunt for voter fraud turns up few cases in key states, officials say

  • Author: Rosalind S. Helderman, Jon Swaine, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 23, 2020
  • Published December 23, 2020

Election workers sort through ballots during a recount of Milwaukee County's results at the Wisconsin Center on Nov. 20. (Photo for The Washington Post by Taylor Glascock)

In Pittsburgh, the local police department this year received 10 complaints of possible fraudulent voting in the November election. Eight of those cases have already been closed without charges or findings of wrongdoing.

Wisconsin officials have charged one woman with voter fraud - a resident of suburban Milwaukee accused of attempting to cast a ballot in the name of her partner, who died in July.

In Michigan, two people have been charged with fraud, both accused of forging the names of their own daughters to obtain or cast a ballot.

After an intense hunt by President Donald Trump’s allies to surface voting irregularities in this year’s election, law enforcement agencies in six key swing states targeted by the president have found just a modest number of complaints that have merited investigation, according to cases tracked by state officials.

So far, only a handful of cases have resulted in actual criminal charges alleging wrongdoing - some of them against Republican voters aiming to help Trump, according to officials, including a man charged Monday with trying to cast a ballot in Pennsylvania for the president in the name of his deceased mother.

The tiny number of incidents further undercut Trump’s barrage of false allegations that there was widespread manipulation of the vote - claims that continue to be echoed by many Republican officials, including some who acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, but assert that fraud was prevalent.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Monday wrote in a tweet that there was “mounting evidence of voter fraud” and members of Congress were preparing to “fight back” against it.

In fact, such allegations have been rejected by dozens of judges across the country, a number of whom noted in their decisions that Trump and his allies failed to put forward evidence to support such claims.

The minimal number of criminal investigations that have so far come out of the November vote further reinforce the absence of sweeping vote fraud schemes.

Officials note that the full picture is not yet known - as is routine, many states conduct exhaustive audits in the months after an election, which sometimes identify cases of double voting or ballots cast by ineligible voters.

Still, they said such cases in the past have been sporadic and in such small numbers that they have not come close to altering the results - and they see no indications that this year’s election will be any different.

The potential cases of fraud under investigation this year do not support the wild claims by Trump and his allies, who have spun tales of shadowy conspiracies involving thousands of shifted votes, vulnerable voting machines and foreign interference, but failed to produce firsthand evidence or even to name the individuals they believe pulled off such audacious schemes.

Instead, the alleged voter fraud cases, mostly spotted by astute local election officials, were identified as a result of the kinds of safeguards in place in states and counties across the nation specifically designed to catch problems.

Most of those so far charged with illegally voting in the presidential race sought to cast one or two additional ballots and appear to have been driven less by a desire to actually swing the election than to cut corners on behalf of a friend or relative or, even, merely to test the system - an illegal act that had been encouraged before Election Day by Trump himself.

In Pennsylvania, where Biden won by more than 80,500 votes, three voters have been charged with voting illegally this year- all Republicans.

Police have alleged that Ralph H. Thurman, 71, voted in Chester County on Election Day - then returned to his polling place wearing sunglasses and attempted to cast a second ballot in the name of his son. He faces four charges, including repeat voting, a felony.

In Wilkes-Barre, Robert R. Lynn, 67, has been charged with requesting an absentee ballot in the name of his mother, who died in 2015, and then attempting to vote in her name by forging her signature. He is charged with forgery and interference with an election, both felonies.

Jeff Oster, a lawyer for Thurman, said in an email that he was “a war hero, philanthropist, family man, and one of the most kind-hearted, honest people that anyone could know - a long-standing pillar of the community.”

Oster said Thurman, who uses a hearing aid, “merely misheard and/or otherwise relied upon what the mask-wearing poll worker told him through a thick plexiglass barrier in a large, noisy gymnasium where voter check-in was taking place.”

“I can firmly state that Mr. Thurman did not break the law on November 3, 2020,” he added.

A lawyer for Lynn did not respond to a request for comment.

Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said the two cases were “out of a Benny Hill skit,” referring to the slapstick comedian.

“It perfectly illustrates how rare and difficult it is to commit voter fraud,” he said in an interview.

Election officials from the Allegheny County Elections Division look for a particular ballot bin at the elections warehouse in Pittsburgh on Nov. 4, 2020. (Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson)

Fetterman cited the cases in response to a call-out on Twitter by his Texas counterpart, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who offered a $1 million reward for anyone who brought forward a valid complaint of fraud, part of an effort by GOP officials to put a spotlight on alleged irregularities.

Fetterman requested that his reward money be paid in gift cards to Sheetz gas stations. Patrick, he said, has so far “stiffed” him on the offer.

Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for Patrick, said the offer was for tips that lead to an arrest and conviction. “Fetterman should actually read Lt. Governor Patrick’s offer before calling reporters,” she said in a statement.

A third case in Pennsylvania surfaced Monday, when the district attorney of Delaware County, outside Philadelphia, announced a 70-year-old man had been charged with requesting and casting a ballot in the name of his mother, who died in 2008. In a statement, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the man has admitted voting in his mother’s name - for Trump.

Officials in Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh - where Trump’s team alleged without evidence that widespread corruption tipped the state to Biden - said that no one has been charged with voter fraud in connection to this year’s election.

In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said in an email that of the 10 cases his office reviewed, one remains open and a second was referred to another county for further review.

The other eight, all now closed, included “alleged ‘suspicious’ interactions between election workers that were found to be normal elections processes,” misunderstandings of election law, and allegations based on Facebook posts which “were found to be fake,”he said.

Election workers scan mail-in ballots in a secure room at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Nov. 3. (Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount)

The situation is similar in Nevada, another state where Trump and his backers claimed that the election results were distorted by a virtual kitchen sink of fraudulent behavior, including ballot-box stuffing, illegal out-of-state voting and double voting.

But officials in Clark County, the state’s most populous, said a week after Election Day that they had referred just three cases to the secretary of state for investigation.

In one case, it appeared a woman had used her deceased father’s absentee ballot instead of her own, Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin said. In another, a deceased woman’s ballot was cast with a signature that matched hers, suggesting someone had forged it.

And in a third, a woman named Jill Stokke claimed someone had stolen her vote by forging her signature on a mail ballot.

Republicans featured Jill Stokke as a star plaintiff in one of their unsuccessful lawsuits over ballot-counting in Clark County. But it turned out that Stokke had been offered a chance to vote with a new ballot if she signed a statement swearing that the mail-ballot signature was not hers. She refused to do so.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske declined to comment on the three cases last week, as did a spokesman for Attorney General Aaron Ford, who also declined to comment on the existence of or status of ongoing investigations.

This month, Cegavske published a fact sheet that said although her office is “pursuing action in a number of isolated cases,” she has not been presented with evidence of widespread fraud.

One man in Nevada is scheduled to go on trial in February for allegedly voting twice - in the 2016 election.

In Michigan, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office said there are fewer than a dozen ongoing investigations involving allegations of voter fraud or misinformation that are still being reviewed.

Two people have been charged in the state with voter fraud: a 57-year-old woman accused of forging the name of her daughter on an application to request a ballot and a 47-year old man charged with forging his daughter’s signature on a ballot itself.

Election workers scan mail-in ballots in a secure room at the Voters cast their ballots inside the Desert Breeze Community Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 3. (Photo for The Washington Post by Mikayla Whitmore)

Election officials said developing genuine fraud cases takes time and noted that states have established protocols to flag potential problems.

In Wisconsin, for instance, careful audits will be conducted early next year, comparing lists of everyone who voted to lists of felons who were ineligible to work and consulting lists maintained by a consortium of 30 states and the District to ensure no one voted in Wisconsin who also cast a ballot in another state.

A similar audit following the 2018 general election found 14 possible instances of people who had improperly voted twice or who voted despite being ineligible to do so - out of a total of more than 2.65 million ballots cast.

“There’s no reason to believe this year will be any different than the past,” Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said in an interview. “We have a lot of safeguards in the system.”

So far, Kaul said he was aware of only one voter fraud investigation in Wisconsin. In that case, court records show, a city clerk in the town of Cedarburg called the police after her staff tried to process an absentee ballot that had been cast in the name of a woman who had died in July.

According to court records, Christine Daikawa, 48, the woman’s partner, has been charged with election fraud and making a false statement to get a ballot, accused of casting the ballot on her deceased partner’s behalf. She has pleaded not guilty.

Her attorney, Michael F. Hart, declined to comment on Daikawa’s case, but said based on his experience working election-related cases that such instances are rare.

“The idea that there’s a whole swath of people on either side of the aisle who are trying to alter the outcome of an election by systematic fraud, is, in my experience, laughable and not accurate,” he said.

Absentee ballots and overseas ballots are received and processed at the elections preparation center at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov. 3. (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

Despite claims from Trump allies that the increased use of mail-in balloting due to the coronavirus pandemic would lead to more fraud, a Washington Post analysis of data collected by the consortium, the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), found that in 2016 and 2018, three states that conduct their elections entirely by mail had small numbers of potential fraud.

The analysis found that officials had identified just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, where all voters proactively receive ballots in the mail for every election.

Local officials have complained that they have fielded more false complaints of fraud that must be chased down as a result of the rhetoric from the president and his supporters. Trump’s claims encouraged people to report routine procedures they simply did not understand as possible problems, contributing to an atmosphere of suspicion, they said.

An official in the office of Arizona’s Republican attorney general said a state tip line was flooded with about 2,000 complaints in the days after the vote - but 1,100 were quickly found to be made by people expressing a general fear there might have been problems with votes cast using Sharpie pens, a rumor that spread online and has been debunked. The official said the state continues to review several hundred complaints related to the election.

“A lot of people don’t understand the process. They’re looking at things that are perfectly normal,” Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager, said in an interview.

State officials in Georgia had initially said they were probing 250 complaints of possible voting problems, but have since revised that figure downward, since it included issues related to the primary. Sterling said that as of mid-December, the secretary of state’s 23 investigators were examining around 150 complaints related to the November vote in a state where Biden beat Trump by nearly 12,000 votes.

The claims under investigation span a wide range of issues, Sterling said, including allegations of illegal campaigning outside the polling place, miscellaneous issues with the printing of ballots, alleged voter registration fraud, identity theft, compliance issues with American Disability Act requirements, complaints about poll watchers, alleged theft of absentee ballots, issues with poll pads and allegations of vote buying.

There was no evidence of widespread illegal activity, he said.

“We can tell by the nature and volume of what we’re looking at that there is not a systemic, widespread, conspiratorial thing that will flip 12,000 ballots potentially right now,” Sterling said, referring to Biden’s margin in victory in Georgia. “All the procedures were followed.”

“Overall,” he said, “the guardrails that are there stop a lot of this stuff.”

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The Washington Post’s Emma Brown and David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

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