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VERIFY: No evidence of widespread cases of dead people voting

Allegations of voter fraud through votes by dead people are light on proof, and one database found only a handful of such cases in the past 15 years.

There have been a number of rumors and claims that have stirred up suspicion that widespread ballots were cast by deceased people -- votes that could swing the election

But at this point, none of those rumors have turned out to be true. Meanwhile, elections officials in multiple states and localities have provided explanations as to why it is highly unlikely a dead person has voted even if it appears that way online.

THE QUESTION

Are people voting using the identities of dead people not purged from voter rolls?

THE ANSWER

There’s currently no evidence to suggest this is happening, especially not at rates large enough to swing the results of any one state.

Elections officials have systems in place to keep dead people from voting in elections. While it’s certainly possible a few could slip by those systems and people could commit voter fraud by voting with a dead person’s identity, there hasn’t been any real evidence it’s happening at widespread rates.

WHAT WE FOUND

One of the most viral claims of voter fraud through deceased voting says that a William Bradley from Detroit who died in 1984 voted in this election. The Michigan Department of State called this misinformation.

But to the original poster’s credit, you do find a returned absentee ballot under a William Bradley born in March 1902 from the 48207 zip code when you look it up on Michigan’s online voter index. However, you can also find a William Bradley born in July 1959 from the 48207 zip code who does not have a returned absentee ballot and is in the same precinct in Michigan’s online voter index.

Politifact reached out to that William Bradley and found out it was the deceased Bradley’s son. He said he received two absentee ballots, one for himself and one for his deceased father. He threw out his father’s and mailed his own ballot in. He said an error incorrectly attributed the vote to the elder Bradley rather than him.

The Michigan Department of State website addresses claims of deceased voters voting in elections. They say, “ballots of voters who have died are rejected in Michigan, even if the voter cast an absentee ballot and then died before Election Day.” 

They also state something that appears to explain the Bradley situation: “On rare occasions, a ballot received for a living voter may be recorded in a way that makes it appear as if the voter is dead. This can be because of voters with similar names, where the ballot is accidentally recorded as voted by John Smith Sr when it was actually voted by John Smith Jr; or because of inaccurately recorded birth dates in the qualified voter file; for example, someone born in 1990 accidentally recorded as born in 1890. In such scenarios, no one ineligible has actually voted, and there is no impact on the outcome of the election. Local clerks can correct the issue when it is brought to their attention.”

Nonetheless, an absentee ballot was still sent to a deceased man. That man’s son said he threw the ballot away, but the fact he received a ballot and later got credit for his son’s vote shows he’s still on the voter rolls. How does that happen?

The National Conference of State Legislatures says states are required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 to remove deceased persons from the voter rolls. They say states often achieve this when “election officials receive information on deceased voters from the state department of vital statistics, the state department of health, or another agency that handles death records. In some states officials may also gather this information from other sources, such as obituary notices, copies of death certificates, and notification from a close relative.” Some localities, such as Clark County in Nevada, provide forms for people to fill out if they suspect there is a deceased voter on the rolls who needs to be removed. And some states, such as Pennsylvania, will list the removal of deceased voters from the rolls as maintenance activities. States regularly improve this process over time, like Wisconsin did in 2013.

And sometimes -- as noted by the Michigan Department of State -- what appears to be dead voters or other suspicious voter on the rolls is actually something far less sinister. In Pennsylvania, for example, its department of state explains on the mail ballot request data, "The reason some birth dates will display as 1/1/1800 is due to confidentiality reasons of the registered votes. Usually this is for victims of domestic violence."

Of course, it’s still possible for states to miss such voters for whatever reason. The Public Interest Legal Foundation sued Detroit for failing to remove deceased and moved voters from the rolls in 2019. However, they voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year because they were certain “remedial actions were taken after the filing of this lawsuit.”

In the cases where a deceased voter is missed on the rolls despite a state, city or county’s efforts to clear them, election officials reject those ballots. This is noted not only in Michigan as mentioned above, but also in Pennsylvania, where this year’s mail-in ballot procedures tell the county boards of elections to “set aside the ballot of any voter who was deceased before election day.”

This kind of voter fraud happens, but in actuality is quite rare. The Heritage Foundation, which touts its principles of conservatism, maintains an election fraud database. They note only 25 cases of election fraud involving “deceased” people since 2005 and only six cases involving “dead” people since 2004, although there was another case in 1997.

A 2007 paper from the Brennan Center, which works to expand voting rights, claims voter fraud and attempts at voting under a dead person’s name are rare. They say, “In the course of millions of recorded votes and voters, it is virtually certain that there will be clerical errors. Often, what appears to be voter fraud—a person attempting to vote under a false name, for example — can be traced back to a typo.” The William Bradley case mentioned above fits this description.

Casting a vote under a dead person’s name and other kinds of voter fraud are illegal. If such things are happening, a criminal investigation will be opened up and people will be prosecuted. Currently, no such investigations or cases have been announced. The Justice Department did note, however, they were working to combat election fraud in a press release from last Thursday.