If you ever argue with conservative friends about voter-ID laws, invariably they will bring up the threat of “zombie voters” — fraudulent votes cast in the name of people who were already dead on election day.
In truth, zombie voters are as much of a myth as zombies in general. But you’ll never convince your friends of that, because they’ve seen countless segments on Fox News in which some Republican official announces — in terms that seem too specific to be made up — that dead people have voted. It’s a very convincing technique that goes back to Joe McCarthy’s list of 205 known Communists in the State Department in 1950. (If he’d just said generally that there were some Communists in the State Department, people might have thought he was exaggerating for effect. But a list of 205 of them! He couldn’t make that up, could he?)
The story always goes like this: A computer search produces a list of possible zombie voters, and the right-wing media goes wild with calls for voter ID laws (always conveniently designed to make voting harder for Democratic-leaning blocs of marginal voters like college students, the disabled, and the urban poor). If anybody investigates further, though, a few months later they’ll have discovered that none of the cases pan out. No actual zombies are found. But because that outcome is boring, nobody covers it — least of all Fox.
The most recent example of this pattern comes from South Carolina. In January of 2012, SC Attorney General Alan Wilson was making the tour of conservative media outlets, saying stuff like this:
we found out that there were over 900 people who died and then subsequently voted. That number could be even higher than that, Bill. So this is just an example.
We know for a fact that there are deceased people whose identities are being used in elections in South Carolina.
More specifically, the state DMV had compared its death data against the voting records for the previous six years and found “953 ballots cast by voters listed as dead“!
At least that was the story until they started showing those 953 names to people who actually know something about elections. Testifying to the legislature, State Elections Commissioner Marci Andino explained the six names she had seen from one county:
one had cast an absentee ballot before dying; another was the result of a poll worker mistakenly marking the voter as his deceased father; two were clerical errors resulting from stray marks on voter registration lists detected by a scanner; and two others resulted from poll managers incorrectly marking the name of the voter in question instead of the voter above or below on the list.
This kind of stuff happens all the time — poll workers are mostly volunteers, after all — and explains why the zombie-voter story is itself impossible to kill: You could do a similar records search after any election anywhere, and come up with a similar list of possible zombie voters. The existence of such a list sounds horrifying, but it says nothing about the integrity of the election.
So OK, 953 is an exaggeration. But if you went through all the names, you’d find some zombie voters, right? By April, the State Election Commission had gone through all 207 cases from the 2010 election and had explained all but 10 of them, with no clear zombie-voter evidence even in those 10. State police later whittled those 10 down to 3, and recommended no further investigation.
I expect we’ll wait a long time for Fox to bring Alan Wilson back to comment on this, but fortunately Columbia, S.C.’s weekly Free Times stuck with the story and made an open-records request to get the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s final 500-page report on the 953 zombie voters. On July 3, FT reported:
a state police investigation found no indication that anyone purposefully cast a ballot using the name of a dead person in South Carolina. … SLED found no indication of voter fraud.
That result probably didn’t surprise election expert Richard Hasan, who told Bill Moyers last September:
It’s no surprise that the numbers [of prosecutions] are so low, because voter impersonation fraud is an exceedingly dumb way to try to steal an election.
Why is it dumb? You have to steal votes one-by-one, in a time-consuming way, and you face the constant possibility that you might be caught by a poll worker who knew the person you’re claiming to be, or saw the obituary in the local newspaper. To swing an election that way, you’d need a large conspiracy. Somebody would get caught, and somebody would talk. It’s not worth the risk.
So has anybody ever successfully voted more than once by impersonating a dead person? Maybe, somewhere. It’s not impossible. But does anyone organize such efforts to produce enough zombie votes to sway an election (even a very close election)? Pretty conclusively, the answer is no.
Just look at South Carolina in 2010. Around 1.3 million votes were cast in a moderately close governor’s race that year, which Nikki Haley won by 60,000. How many of those votes came from dead-person impersonators? Possibly zero, but after extensive investigation we can be sure that there were no more than 3.