Voter and Electoral Fraud Charges
Claims of voter fraud and electoral fraud have become more commonplace in America’s political landscape, but what do these terms mean? Generally speaking, “voter fraud” refers to illegal behavior of individual voters, while “electoral fraud” refers to illegal interference in the process of an election. It is important to know that for something to be considered fraud, it must be intentional, so voter and electoral fraud should only be charged against to intentional corruption of the election process, not honest mistakes, or clerical errors.
Most issues concerning the administration of elections are governed and regulated by state law. However, federal law enforcement and prosecutors have the legal authority to investigate and prosecute electoral and voter fraud in some situations, including:
- In elections with a federal candidate’s name on the ballot
- Fraud in connection to voter registration
- Fraud in connection to the misuse of a computer system in connection to unlawful election activity
- Fraud by election officials acting unlawfully, such as preventing valid vote registration.
Research has revealed that voter fraud is quite rare in the United States election system, but this has not stopped repeated, often false accusations of fraud. It is very often the case that these accusations are made against non-citizens, even those residing in America legally. If you are facing such accusations or charges, you will need the help of experienced immigration defense attorneys immediately. Such accusations alone can have harmful effects to your immigration status, family safety and freedom in the United States if they are not challenged by a skilled attorney.
Types of Voter Fraud
Voter fraud refers to illegal actions of individual voters in their participation in the electoral process. It either involves fraud in the obtaining and marking of ballots or the registration of voters. There are a wide variety of ways this can occur and a comprehensive list can be found under the Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, but notable examples include:
Voter Registration Fraud
Voter registration fraud is any fraudulent activity that takes place while registering to vote and does not require the accused to cast a ballot to be guilty of (52 U.S.C. §§ 10307(c) , 20511(2A)). Typically, this crime is committed by a campaign worker on a voter registration drive rather than individual voters. For example, a person can help somebody fill out their voter registration card and forge the voter’s signature, or intentionally provide other false information such as a false address.
An individual can commit voter registration fraud by providing false information concerning their name, address, or period of residence to register to vote. Another way to commit voter registration fraud is to register to vote under a fictional character.
Voter Impersonation Fraud
Voter impersonation is a form of in-person voter fraud which occurs when somebody impersonates a registered voter to vote on their behalf (52 U.S.C. §§ 10307(c, e), 20511(2B)). This can be committed by either eligible voters attempting to vote multiple times, or ineligible individuals attempting to vote.
This type of voter fraud gets a tremendous amount of media attention and accusations of election corruption, driving the political push for harsher voter ID laws, though the frequency that this actually occurs is estimated to be extremely rare.
A common voter impersonation accusation is that somebody (often a non-citizen) voted on behalf of somebody who was deceased or had moved at the time of casting the vote. While it has been reported that there are large numbers of outdated voter registrations due to people who have moved or are deceased, there is little evidence of voter fraud resulting from it.
Selling your vote to a political candidate is a crime in all 50 states (18 U.S.C § 597) and would generally go hand-in-hand with a candidate being accused of electoral fraud for buying votes. It is important to note that, in accordance with the law, you can be guilty of this crime if you solicit, accept or receive any expenditure to vote or withhold your vote for a candidate. This means that you can still be guilty of this crime if you do not end up voting in accordance with whatever agreement you made or solicited.
Non-Citizen and Felon Voting
Several federal and state laws govern the registration and voting of non-citizens and felons. In all 50 states, it is illegal for anyone who is not a United States citizen to vote in a federal election (18 U.S.C. § 611). It is also illegal to falsely claim United States citizenship for the purposes of voter registration or voting in any election (18 U.S.C. §§ 911, 1015(f)).
Voting rights for people convicted of a felony are largely governed by state laws and varies from state to state. In North Carolina, people with felony convictions can vote again upon completion of all the terms of their sentence, including probation or parole. Attempting to register to vote or voting while serving a felony sentence is itself a felony in North Carolina. Felons who have served their sentence can request a Certificate of Restoration of Forfeited Rights of Citizenship, though it is not required for voter registration. An individual convicted of a misdemeanor but not felony still retains the right to vote eve n while incarcerated.
Types of Electoral Fraud
Electoral Fraud cases involve the illegal interference with the election process. This typically means fraud took place in the counting and certification of election results but can also apply to dissemination of false information about voting as well as voter intimidation. Election crime cases tend to be long-term projects focusing on individuals with different degrees of culpability. The goal is to move up the ladder of culpability to candidates, political operatives, public officials, and others who attempted to corrupt, or did corrupt, the public office involved. Some examples of electoral fraud are:
Like with vote selling, you can be guilty of vote buying for solicitation alone, so no “bought” vote needs to be cast for this crime to be committed. Vote buying can be committed by the candidate themselves or others, and the act of buying does not exclusively apply to money but any sort of expenditure such as buying people drinks to vote for a candidate.
Ballot Box Stuffing and Harvesting
This occurs when election officials act unlawfully to dilute valid ballots or invalidate votes. Ballot Box Stuffing involves diluting valid ballots with invalid ones. Ballot harvesting refers to campaign workers collecting absentee ballots and not submitting them to the police place. This particular form of fraud was involved in a 2018 controversy in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, where many mail-in-ballots requested by minority voters in the district were never returned.
Essentially any act by an election official that can render false vote counts or prevent valid voter registration is an electoral fraud crime (18 U.S.C. §§ 241, 242) and violation of civil rights.
It is a crime to intimidate voters through physical or economic intimidation, both in the act of registering to vote or voting in a federal election (52 U.S.C. § 20511, 18 U.S.C. § 594). This act can be committed by any person and not only an election official. While “intimidation” can be somewhat vague, this crime is outline under 18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(1)(A) that such intimidation, coercion or threat should involve some form of physical or economic intimidation, threats, or interference.
There are also federal laws that prohibit officers in the military, navy or civil service from using their authority to keep troops at polls unless necessary to repel armed enemies of the State (18 U.S.C. § 592), presumably to avoid having authorities intimidate voters to retain power.
Voter Misinformation Campaigns
Voting misinformation campaigns involve the deliberate spread of misinformation about voting criteria, election hours, poll locations and any information intended to deter people from exercising their right to vote. It has become an increasingly popular debate topic as social media platforms have seen increasing amounts of factually inaccurate content related to voting criteria, much of which appears to be spread deliberately by misinformation robot accounts.
There is no formal federal law prohibiting such campaigns yet, though some members of congress are proposing legislation to make deliberate misinformation campaigns a federal crime. Whether such legislation is enacted is yet to be seen, but for now in the state of North Carolina, some of these acts can be deemed illegal. Under N.C.G.S § 163-275 (7), it is a felony:
For any person with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time, or to induce another to do so, in the same primary or election, or to vote illegally at any primary or election.”
Essentially, if you spread misinformation that provokes other people to commit voter fraud, you can be guilty of a felony. While this may not apply to inducing somebody to visit the wrong poll or try to vote on a different day, you should recognize that such acts could soon be illegal federally.
Penalties for Voter or Electoral Fraud
Penalties for voter and electoral fraud vary depending on whether you are facing state or federal charges and the type of charge. In North Carolina, most acts of voter fraud, including voting twice, soliciting others to vote twice, vote selling, and voter impersonation are a Class I Felony. For non-citizens, including those residing in the United States legally, it is possible that you could face deportation for a voter fraud conviction.
Electoral fraud penalties vary and typically are more serious depending on the level of culpability and authority that may have been abused. The penalties for electoral fraud for individuals for crimes such as voter intimidation is typically 1 – 5 years in prison and a possible fine. When such violations of people’s right to vote are committed by election officials, such as ballot box stuffing, much greater fines can be imposed and a potential sentence of 2 – 10 years in prison. Threats to election candidates and officials can also carry a harsher sentence.
Defending Voter and Electoral Fraud Charges
While voter fraud can occur in many ways, the Department of Justice is focusing on prosecution of noncitizens (rather than other types of election fraud, such as the ballot-tampering allegations). Many voter fraud allegations related to non-citizens occur because individuals are confused about their eligibility to vote. While 18 U.S.C. § 611 makes clear that only citizens can vote, many permanent residents (green card holders) have registered to vote, or have in fact voted, in elections without knowing their conduct was illegal. A key aspect that prosecutors need to prove in these cases is that the voter or electoral act was done with intent to corrupt the system, which can be difficult to prove against experienced attorneys.
It is critical to find an experienced attorney as soon as possible if you are facing accusations of voter fraud, especially in the current political climate. Many judges have been seeing an increase in unfounded claims of voter fraud in North Carolina and across the county, aimed at intimidating non-citizens. There has been a growing push to rule unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud as defamatory, with some successful rulings that can help protect non-citizens, which is why you need to challenge these accusations early.
If you have been charged with federal voter fraud, you need a lawyer experienced in handling these allegations who can also work with an immigration lawyer to protect your residency status.