Could massive voter fraud have occurred in the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

The mysterious case of the dog which did not bark

Pippa Norris

Even after he won the Electoral College, Donald Trump continues to claim, without any evidence, that voter fraud during the 2016 election cost him the popular vote, with anywhere from 3 to 5 million “illegal” votes cast.

In the ABC News interview with David Muir he said: “You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states. They're registered in a New York and a New Jersey. They vote twice. There are millions of votes, in my opinion."

He added: “Of those votes cast, none of them come to me. None of them come to me. They would all be to the other side. None of them come to me. But when you look at the people registered, dead, illegal, and two states, and some cases maybe 3 states. We have a lot to look into".


Despite push-back from several leading Republicans and Democrats, the claim quickly spread like wildfire via social media. The administration considered asking the Justice Department to launch an official investigation before backing away from this. Without providing any evidence, on 9th February 2017 Trump claimed that he lost New Hampshire because of millions of voters bussed in from Massachusetts. His advisor, Stephen Miller, also repeated the assertion of massive fraud.

Stephen Miller interview with George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, 12 Feb 2017

Stephen Miller interview with George Stephanopoulos, ABC News, 12 Feb 2017


Is there any evidence supporting these claims?

These claims are puzzling since no credible evidence supports the administration’s claims of rigged elections or a vast conspiracy involving ‘millions’ of illegal ballots. Study after study investigating these issues has found no systematic evidence supporting the claim of large-scale voter fraud, defined as cases involving voters casting multiple ballots in an election, casting a ballot when disqualified to do so, or voter impersonation.

Thus a comprehensive 2014 study published in The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of impersonation fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.  Another review of voter fraud in the 2016 election found only four documented cases. The Brennan Center report concluded an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” A thorough examination, by Lorraine Minnite, found that specific cases of deliberate voting fraud were extremely rare.

Several widely-respected bodies have issued a series of reports affirming the integrity of the American voting process, including the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Association of State Election Directors, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the bipartisan blue-ribbon Bauer-Ginsberg 2014 Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration.  

The claim of millions of illegal votes also fails to pass the simplest commonsense ‘sniff’ test: most U.S. states are controlled by Republicans, so it would also be implausible to assume their State Election Directors are engaged in a vast conspiracy to cover up cases of fraud against President Trump.

In short, like beliefs about the Loch Ness Monster, a phantom myth exists about voter fraud, one which millions of Republicans believe. In the Gallup World Poll, for example, by 2016 only 30% of Americans expressed confidence in the honesty of their elections, a figure which has almost halved during the last decade and a level of confidence similar to that found in Putin's Russia.

Like the dog which didn't bark, it remains hard to disprove a negative (something which does not happen). Despite rigorous and thorough scrutiny, however, and one or two documented cases, no studies suggest that massive voter fraud occurs influencing millions of votes in American elections.

This issue also distracts attention from many genuine problems with American elections, from voting laws and gerrymandering to campaign finance, fake news, and cybersecurity. Surveys of experts highlight several of these concerns, especially drawing district boundaries to favor incumbents, as the most problematic in many U.S. states.

Trump is right in arguing that improvements should be made to strengthen electoral administration in America. A 2012 Pew report highlighted, and the 2014 Pew Electoral Performance Index report confirmed, that inaccuracies exist in state electoral rolls. Clerical errors and bad data entry happens. People move addresses and forget to notify officials. Electors die. In a few exceptional cases, some non-citizens register erroneously. Although U.S. electoral administration improved, following the 2002 HAVA act, in the past several states have failed to invest in modern technologies which help to maintain records and clean rolls accurately and efficiently. The process of voter registration in the U.S. is also far, far more laborious, inefficient, and decentralized than in most Western democracies. Official records need to be carefully secured against hacking threats. Old-fashioned voting machines, and those lacking a paper trail, also need replacing. But none of these administrative problems are about fraud per se.

So why claim fraud?

Losers from elections often whinge about the outcome.  But winners rarely question the legitimacy of their victory, for obvious reasons.

So why does Trump claim massive fraud occurred? This is a genuine puzzle.

We do not know for sure. There are at least two possible plausible interpretations of these claims.  

One potential explanation is psychological. Trump may be misguided and genuinely delusional in his conspiratorial beliefs, unable to sort out truth from facts. The misleading claim is consistent with Trump's exaggerating the size of the crowds attending his inauguration and related "alternative facts". Populist authoritarian leaders typically draw their legitimacy from grassroots support. Any delusional tendencies and disregard for easily verifiable facts would be deeply worrying for American leadership.

Alternatively, this technique may be used rationally as part of a propaganda campaign. There may be method in his madness if Donald Trump is attempting to mislead his supporters. This strategy could be designed to depress voter turnout in future contests (why bother to vote if the system is rigged?). It could legitimate attempts by Republican-controlled state houses to pass new laws suppressing voters’ rights. Even worse, it may reflect broader authoritarian values seeking to reduce public confidence in elections and thereby undermine the core principles and institutions of liberal democracy.

Or perhaps both delusions and propaganda are all mixed up.

Whatever the exact reasons, a president questioning the legitimacy of the electoral processes without any evidence raises questions with troubling implications for the future of American democracy.

Pippa Norris is the Maguire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, Laureate Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.