USA Today

We analyzed a conservative foundation’s catalog of absentee ballot fraud: It’s not a 2020 election threat

Leila and Gary Blake didn’t want to miss elk hunting season.

It was 2000, and the election conflicted with their plans, so the Wyoming couple requested absentee ballots.

But the Blakes had moved from 372 Curtis St. five miles down the road to 1372 Curtis St., crossing a town line. When they mailed their votes using the old address, they were criminally charged. The misdemeanor case was settled with $700 in fines and a few months’ probation, but two decades later, the Blakes are still listed as absentee ballot fraudsters in the Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database.

Far from being proof of organized, large-scale vote-by-mail fraud, the Heritage database presents misleading and incomplete information that overstates the number of alleged fraud instances and includes cases where no crime was committed, an investigation by USA TODAY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the PBS series “Frontline” found.

Although the list has been used to warn against a major threat of fraud, a deep look at the cases in the list shows that the vast majority put just a few votes at stake.

The database is the result of a years-long passion project by Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the U.S. Department of Justice during the George W. Bush administration and a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The entire Election Fraud Database contains 1,298 entries of what the think tank describes as “proven instances of voter fraud.” It has been amplified by conservative media stars and was submitted to the White House document archives as part of a failed effort to prove that voter fraud ran rampant during the 2016 election.

But the Blakes’ address violation is typical of the kind of absentee ballot cases in the database. It appears along with widows and widowers who voted for a deceased loved one, voters confused by recent changes to the law and people never convicted of a crime.

The Heritage database does not include a single example of a concerted effort to use absentee ballot fraud to steal a major election, much less a presidential election, as President Donald Trump has suggested could happen this year. Though Trump has repeatedly claimed that absentee ballot fraud is widespread, only 207 of the entries in the Heritage database are listed under the fraudulent absentee ballot category. Not only is that a small slice of the overall Heritage database, it represents an even smaller portion of the number of local, state and national elections held since 1979, which is as far back as the database goes.

To examine the facts behind the rhetoric, reporters looked at each case in Heritage’s online category of “Fraudulent use of absentee ballots,” comparing them with state investigations, court documents and news clips. Roughly one in 10 cases involves a civil penalty and no criminal charge. Some of the cases, such as the one involving the Blakes, do not match the online definition of absentee fraud as stated by the Heritage Foundation itself. Four cases did not involve absentee ballots at all, including a 1996 murder-for-hire case that included a person persuaded to illegally vote using a wrong address.

Click here to read the rest of the USA Today story.

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