The Myth of the Zombie Voter

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.

and this:

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.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On July 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    As a native South Carolinian and now retired back to SC your writing is spot on. As usual South Carolina elected officals play the race card at every opportunity. But what can you expect when our Attorney General is the son of Rep. Wilson who shouuted “You Lie” at The State of the Union address? At least you will have a lot to write about Iif ypu follow SC politics…..

  • Devil'sA  On July 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Are you saying that there has been no significant voter fraud LATELY? Because historically there’s a pretty good case for voter fraud (Chicago, 1960 comes to mind). That doesn’t mean the current system needs to be fixed, of course…

    • weeklysift  On July 15, 2013 at 10:06 pm

      Even historically, I believe the fraud was on the part of election officials, not voters who try to fool the poll watchers.

Trackbacks

  • By License to Kill | The Weekly Sift on July 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    […] or, more accurately, The Myth of the Zombie Voter. […]

  • […] (Last month I described how an extensive South Carolina investigation of in-person voter fraud failed to find any.) NC has some history of absentee-ballot fraud, which this law does not address. (Why discourage […]

  • By Radical | The Weekly Sift on September 2, 2013 at 10:33 am

    […] in July I told you what happened to the bold claims of South Carolina’s attorney general that dead […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    […] best post nobody read: “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“. So far it only has about 200 page views. This is an article to bookmark and keep ready when […]

  • By Diabolical Persistence | The Weekly Sift on June 30, 2014 at 10:10 am

    […] Republicans often claim voter fraud is rampant, to the point that some even think Obama’s two massive victories are suspect. If you believe […]

  • By How Propaganda Works | The Weekly Sift on October 19, 2015 at 8:39 am

    […] values to promote goals that in fact undermine those very values. For example, by popularizing the false belief that America has a significant voter-fraud problem, voter-suppression tactics can be put forward as […]

  • By Propaganda in America Today | The Meaning of Life on October 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    […] propaganda, which appeals to values in order to undermine those very values. For example, the false belief that America has a voter-fraud problem is used to suppress voting in the name of election […]

  • […] investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in […]

  • By Well enough | The Weekly Sift on October 24, 2016 at 11:26 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Why so frustrated, America?” And in view of recent claims about “rigged” elections, I want to flash back to my 2013 post “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“. […]

  • […] days, they let anybody vote. Felons, zombies, bitches, anybody. Just look at them. So they might as well let […]

  • […] days, they let anybody vote. Felons, zombies, bitches, anybody. Just look at them. So they might as well let […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on February 13, 2017 at 7:29 am

    […] Trump started talking about dead people voting, and that took me to another 2013 Sift post “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“, where South Carolina officials looked into a widely distributed claim that 207 dead people […]

  • […] and voting“. Also in 2013, I covered one paradigmic example of that urban legend in “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“. Leaning heavily on an article from Free Times, I look at what happens when somebody […]

  • By The Pitch President | The Weekly Sift on May 15, 2017 at 10:54 am

    […] in more than a handful of cases. I examined a typical dead-people-are-voting story in “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“: A computer search turned up hundreds of “dead voters” in South Carolina in the […]

  • By Weirdness | The Weekly Sift on September 18, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    […] fraud claims seriously — and watched them evaporate — was the basis for my post “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“.)  Kobach has a list of names. He knows who these 5313 people are. If they’ve […]

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