Here's what you need to know about election fraud

President Trump has launched a commission to study voter fraud. But his panel is not the first one to study this issue.

There have been many studies looking into voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice studied every federal election between 2000 and 2015. That means they were looking at more than 1 billion votes cast over those 14 years. Among those, researchers found 31 credible examples of voter fraud that could be fixed by implementing a voter ID law. Regular academic studies have returned similar results, as did a five-year study conducted by a federal panel under the George Bush administration.

So why is the president launching a voter fraud commission? And what do we need to know about voter fraud, voter suppression and the politics surrounding both of these issues?

MPR News host Kerri Miller talked to two experts to find answers: Vann Newkirk, a staff writer at The Atlantic, and Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola.

Here are some highlights of their conversation, edited for length and clarity:

How much voter fraud is there?

One thing to note about that study: that was 31 examples of the sort of fraud that an ID rule could fix and delivered in the context of people debating about whether people should have to show a particular form of ID at the polls when they go there. Other fraud does happen, but it's relatively small. It tends not to happen in presidential elections or in big state-wide elections. It tends to happen in local elections. And it tends to be some very old ways of proceeding: stuffing the ballot boxes, occasionally buying votes, that sort of thing. — Justin Levitt

We know dual voter registration is a problem. Doesn't that lead to fraud?

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has brought nine cases [of voter fraud to court since 2015]. That's not 90, that's not 900, that's not 9,000. It's nine cases. And that's pretty much consistent with the incidence of this sort of voting twice in different states. It happens. But it happens a really, really small amount of the time. So, we have a registration system that is slowly getting better. It's slowly bringing itself into the 20th century. It's slower than it should be -- it needs a lot more funding to invest in our elections. But that is entirely different from whether people are committing crimes by unlawfully casting votes in multiple places. -- Levitt

What about other kinds of voter fraud? Don't people use absentee ballots, impersonate other voters, etc.?

Instances like those [happen] - you also have basic familial coercion, which happens often. That's always been a part of voting. Say husbands have forced their wives to vote a certain way... or they've forced grown kids to vote that way. So I don't know if that is something you actually can say is considered fraud or widespread fraud. I don't know if we have good data on that, or other things that happen like irregularities in absentee ballots; people who register in two states; people who accidentally cast votes twice. Those get rolled up in fraud and all these conversations and hype around fraud, but they actually just tend to be human error mistakes. -- Vann Newkirk

Shouldn't we require people to prove citizenship before they vote? What's wrong with that?

The question in election policy is, do the costs outweigh the benefits, or do the benefits outweigh the costs? The question here is: What's the policy that helps really prevent fraud without impacting eligible Americans? If you're a non-citizen there's no incentive for you to cast a ballot. It's a crime. You can be put in jail for, I think, up to 5 years and fined $10,000 for registering, and again up to five years and $10,000 for casting a ballot. If you want to naturalize or become a citizen, that's something that they check before you're able to take steps to become a citizen. And if you voted while you're not a citizen, it's something that can get you deported. Those are pretty serious consequences. And on the other side of the ledger, it's just one incremental vote. So you don't see a lot of incentive for people who aren't citizens to cast ballots." -- Levitt

Why isn't voter fraud more of a problem?

Think about it this way -- if you walk into a convenience store, you may be able to steal something off the shelf. It may be possible. Most people don't. In fact, the vast majority of people don't, and you could stop the opportunity for anybody to steal anything off the shelf by keeping all of the goods in the back, locked up in a safe. But then you'd have a lot fewer sales. It's kind of the same thing in the election process. There are risks to the system. We do our best to mitigate them, but we try to make the cure so that it's not worse than the disease, so that we're not causing more problems than we're trying to fix. -- Levitt

Who are voter ID laws hurting?

I'm from the South and I have grandparents and close relatives who are not all that old who do not have good birth certificates -- they weren't born in hospitals. They were black, born in the Jim Crow South where they weren't given proper documentation when they were born. So they don't have necessarily proof of citizenship, or they don't have necessarily proof of birth. They can't go and validate their strict ID with a birth certificate. This is something that happened often in North Carolina when they implemented their voter ID law. Those sorts of things actually disbar people from being able to vote. You've seen this happening with the request of the commission. People are saying, 'I don't want my identity stolen just because I vote.' So they're actually un-enrolling in the voting process. Are these laws designed to prevent a percentage of votes that may be fraudulent? Are they actually helping? I think all of the data we have now says they actually just disenfranchise more legal voters than they actually protect against the fraudulent ones. -- Newkirk

Why are people upset about Trump's commission and Kris Kobach's role on it?

Some lawsuits against the commission's work have centered on Kobach's proposals to the president to implement a similar reform requiring proof of citizenship to vote nationally. They think it interferes with his ability to be a clear and unbiased presence on that commission. In all his rigorous prosecution as Kansas Secretary of State, he has convicted one person so far of non-citizen voting. Looking at that, and looking at how the requirement for proof of citizenship disenfranchises so many people, I think it's actually going to have a big impact on the long-term mission of the commission and on Kobach's prominence and profile within the administration. -- Newkirk

What could be wrong with simply studying voter fraud?

States certify their election results before they send them on. We have had studies like these from the Brennan Center. We had a commission under the George Bush White House that did the same thing and I think the conclusions converge. You could make the argument that in today's political landscape, things are changing. There's more of an incentive to cast illegal ballots. We've had vigorous study into election results. We've looked at the chances and the occurrences of fraud. We've seen, I think, how much things are human error, like security problems or other discrepancies. I think we know and state elections officials know that those are the problems and it's not really fraud. -- Newkirk

More research doesn't bother me as long as it's done well. I think a lot of people look at who's on this commission and they don't trust that the commission's going to be rigorous in its research. A lot of the individuals on the commission have long histories of making wildly inflated claims... I think that's why people are worried that this commission in particular isn't staffed in a way to do the sort of serious research... A lot of state officials are worried about that too. -- Levitt

Why are people upset with the election commission requesting voter information from states?

Kobach put out a request asking states for the publicly available data on their voter files and he included a lot of things: He asked for name and street address and party affiliation. There's absolutely no reason for him to ask for party affiliation. He asked for military status, he asked for voter history, and things that he actually should know he wasn't going to be able to get. He didn't describe what he's going to do with the information or why he needed it. He didn't describe how he was going to keep it secure. He sent the letter to people who didn't actually oversee elections, and I think a lot of states said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on, step back. Tell me what you're actually going to use this for. Tell me how you're going to secure it.' -- Levitt

What can we do to secure elections?

Several precincts, several counties, even some states have resorted to going back to paper ballots, to old manual entry systems because they couldn't trust the results from their digital systems. Now, that could be the result of hacking. We do know that there was a large scale at least attempt at intrusion by Russian state actors in election systems for 2016. We don't know how much that affected the vote -- if it did at all. But we do know it's possible. -- Newkirk

Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.

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