On Nov. 4, 2014, in Sugar Land, Texas, voters arrive at a pulling station. Mail-in ballots are at the center of Texas voter fraud concerns. (Song Qiong/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Many Americans worried about voter fraud, but experts says it’s rare

ST. LOUIS — On Twitter, Donald Trump said: “Of course there is large-scale voter fraud happening on and before Election Day.”

In the third presidential debate this week he said that he would “keep you in suspense” about whether he would accept results of the Nov. 8 election.

Experts say there has never been evidence of the type of election rigging Trump has obsessed over.

Voter fraud happens, just not on the scale that could swing a presidential election. For example, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation last month pointed to irregularities in absentee voting in the Democratic primary for a state House seat.

A judge ordered a new election because the St. Louis Election Board accepted 142 absentee ballots without envelopes.

Absentee ballot manipulation is rare, but it’s still the most common type of election fraud. It can occur in a tight local election, when dozens of votes could swing the result, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, who also organizes the Election Law Blog.

In perhaps the most extreme case, thousands of absentee ballots were fraudulently cast in the mayoral race in Miami in 1998.

A scheme to fix a presidential election in a battleground state would take thousands of votes. Despite Trump’s comments, John Hancock, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said he’s not concerned about that.

“I don’t think there is the kind of widespread, multimillion-vote fraud that occurs in this country,” he said, “precisely because elections are administered at the local level.”

About the GOP nominee’s vote-fraud allegations, Hancock said he couldn’t speak for Trump. But he said Trump’s campaign has been clear that the comments about the election being “rigged” are in response to his opinion that the news media is biased in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Studies show that many Americans are worried about voter fraud.

In a 2012 Washington Post poll, 48 percent of respondents said voter fraud was a major problem and 33 percent said it was a minor problem. Polling during the 2014 elections showed that substantial percentages of Americans continued to believe voter fraud was a problem.

Blame the news media, says a recent study that included two professors from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The news gives free coverage to the GOP’s fraud concerns, creating the appearance of being a real problem, said the study, by UMSL’s Lea-Rachel Koskik, an economics professor, and David Kimball, a political science professor, working with Brian Fogarty, a social scientist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

By pushing for laws requiring photo IDs at the polls, “Republicans could be seen as taking action and solving problems, and not standing by allowing ‘tainted elections,’” the study found.

“Are there areas of concern, where people who would be so inclined would have opportunity to manipulate votes? Yeah,” said Hancock. “That’s one of the reasons why Republicans generally support photo ID laws to just cut down on the easy vote fraud opportunities that are out there.”

A much publicized report in 2014 by Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles, detailed just 31 instances of in-person voter fraud that would have been prevented by a stricter ID law.

Hasen said a scheme involving voter impersonation would be a “tough way to swing an election.”

“You’d have to tell people to show up — vote at multiple locations — and pay multiple people to commit fraud, and then expect them to remain silent about it.”

Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., and author of the book “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” said the idea of widespread voter impersonation was “illogical.”

It would take several people willing to put themselves in jeopardy of being caught. There could be felony charges.

“And you have to commit the crime in front of the people whose job it is to prevent it,” she said. “And you’d have to know ahead of time that your vote might be decisive. It doesn’t make sense to do.”

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