Can Big Data Help Eliminate Voter Fraud?

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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Conservatives take it as a matter of faith that voter fraud is rampant. Liberals take it as a matter of faith that concern over fraud is merely a cover for voter suppression. Where does the truth lie? Can we resolve this argument based on the facts? We may soon find out.

In Frederick County, Maryland, an election watchdog group is suing the Old Line State over alleged voter fraud. Another “gotcha” moment for conservatives or proof of voter suppression?

Neither. The plaintiffs in this suit are pioneering a new approach to determining whether fraud exists, and who might be its perpetrators. Their approach is elegant, simple, and purely fact-driven. It places no undue burden on legitimate voters, while it deters those ineligible to vote. It violates no one’s privacy. And it provides a template that can be used in every county of the country to either root out voter fraud or demonstrate its absence. Both sides in this debate should hail it as the answer to their prayers.

Here’s how it works. The plaintiffs, John Miller et al, are comparing data from disparate databases that record the interactions of both citizens and non-citizens with their county government. Big Data tools increasingly within reach of ordinary citizens are empowering citizen journalists and activists to identify and shame ineligible voters. And if they can’t prosecute the perpetrators, at least they can discourage them from doing it again by letting them know someone is watching.

They used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain a list of county residents excused from jury duty after they swore under oath that they were non-citizens. The list of excused jurors was then compared to the voter registration rolls. A match indicates one of three things: 1) A non-citizen resident is illegally registered to vote (a crime); 2) A citizen registered to vote lied to evade jury duty (also a crime); or 3) a resident obtained citizenship after being excused from jury duty and before registering to vote (a bit of fortuitous timing that can be easily confirmed).

The plaintiffs’ legal complaint against their county and state boards of elections is clear: Defendants’ actions in allowing individuals who have declared under penalty of perjury that they are not U.S. citizens in order to be excused from jury duty to remain on the Maryland voter rolls violates the plaintiffs’ right to due process and equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment because said actions allow plaintiffs’ lawful votes, cast as properly registered voters, to be diluted or cancelled by votes cast by people unauthorized to vote under Maryland law.

Jury duty rolls are just the beginning. Citizens and non-citizens interact with county, state, and federal agencies in myriad ways, all of which leave a data trail. From EBT food assistance to Social Security to visas, passports, hospital admissions, death certificates, arrest records, licenses, you name it, Big Data tools can be used to flag registered voters who are suspected of being ineligible. In this age of digital transparency, why should Facebook and the NSA have all the fun?

Yes, this approach may yield a number of false positives, but that’s a problem all innovations face. And clarifying the eligibility of the rare individual wrongly identified as being a potential fraudulent voter will be a walk in the park compared to getting off the Department of Homeland Security’s no fly list.

Imagine watchdog groups across the country fanning out to exercise their FOIA rights in pursuit of this strategy. Even in districts where entrenched incumbents will do anything to hold on to office, merely outing perpetrators could have a salutatory effect by generating public pressure to follow the law while letting ineligible voters know that, yes, they can get caught. And it will help district attorneys and attorneys general better do their jobs.

Best of all, it completely sidesteps the trope that voter ID requirements disadvantage certain classes of prospective voters. Politicians could pursue Big Data voter integrity programs without having to stick their necks out supporting controversial voter ID laws, or even declaring one way or another whether they believe fraud is rare or rampant.

Legitimate voters have nothing to fear from the facts. They don’t even have to worry about being inconvenienced, save the tiny fraction of false positives that will be asked for verification (which would certainly be less of a burden than jury duty). The only ones who have to fear letting the facts speak are those who seek to commit voter fraud or exploit false hysteria over the same for political gain.

Maybe, just maybe, we can begin conducting elections in this country unmarred by the cloud of voter fraud—and the toxic debate it’s spawned.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the host of RealClear Radio Hour.