To hear Donald Trump tell it, there will be more zombies among us on Election Day than a Walking Dead finale.
“People that have died 10 years ago are still voting,” Trump told a crowd in Wisconsin last week. Inaccurately citing a Pew study, Trump warned, “More than 1.8 million deceased individual’s, right now, are listed as voters…But I have a feeling they’re not gonna vote for me.”
David Becker, the author of the Pew study that Trump cited, tweeted immediately to clarify that one in eight voter records may be out of date, but he added, there’s “no evidence of voter fraud.” But accuracy was beside the point for Trump, who has spent weeks complaining that the 2016 election is already being rigged against him to ensure his loss, including by people who aren’t even alive anymore.
Suspicions of voter fraud are nothing new, and neither is its existence. Stuffing ballot boxes and stealing elections used to be all in a day’s work for some of the biggest American political machines in American history. But as states have moved to electronic voting systems and safeguards have been added to improve security, incidents of widespread fraud—especially the supernatural nature f- have fallen dramatically, even as doubts about the integrity of the vote have remained high, especially among Republicans.
In the 19th century, party leaders were so powerful they didn’t even need to pretend dead people voted, they just decreed a result. By the 20th century, expectations of fairness in elections rose to the point that party bosses had to do more to make election results at least look real, including with the votes of the dearly departed from time to time.
In 1946, the state of Georgia faced a constitutional crisis when recently elected Gov. Eugene Talmadge died after Election Day, but before he was sworn in to a 4th term. The state legislature had the responsibility to choose between the next two highest vote-getters, which did not include the governor’s son until a “missing” box of ballots appeared in the family’s home county. The legislature then chose the younger Talmadge as governor, even though a later investigation found that several of the new ballots had been cast from the family’s local cemetery. Rest their souls, a court found Talmadge had no right to the governor’s office and the Lt. Gov.- elect took over until the younger Talmadge ran again and won.
The Georgia controversy became local lore, but the most infamous accusations of dead people voting came in the 1960 presidential election, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was accused of stuffing ballot boxes, including with the names of deceased voters, to deliver Illinois to John F. Kennedy. Neither Daley, his family, nor any Kennedy associates ever acknowledged the tampering. An investigation into the matter found “substantial” miscounts precincts it examined, but Kennedy’s 8,800-vote margin in the state stood.
Fast forward twenty or so years and plenty was proven in the 1982 general election in Chicago, where a grand jury investigation found that votes cast by people who had already died were just part of the elaborate patronage-fueled scheme to deliver votes (PDF) to the Democrats in power. One precinct captain detailed a system in which precinct workers to cast multiple votes, including for dead people. After an FBI investigation, 26 people were indicted for voter fraud.
Chicago pols may have been the most famous, but they weren’t the only ones to rely on the deceased to get to power. The 1997 Miami mayor’s race was thrown out by a federal judge when he ruled that deliberate voter fraud had delivered the race to Mayor Xavier Suarez. A grand jury found election officials casting absentee ballots in the names of dozens of residents and at least one dead man. Thanks to absentee ballots, Suarez got to a runoff and a victory, until the entire election was overturned.
Thanks in large part to the modernization of voting equipment and electronic records, no major city has seen a similar instance of widespread fraud or dead people voting since then. The improved records have also made it easier for researchers and investigators to say definitely that widespread fraud has not occurred in specific elections.
Edward Foley, constitutional law professor and elections expert at Ohio State University, pointed to the 2004 governor’s race in Washington State as a recent example of a large scale, highly scrutinized vote that turned up very few irregularities and not one dead person. Of the 2.8 million cast, a detailed review of the election showed 129 questionable ballots, including 19 votes in the names of dead people that were determined to be clerical errors, not identity theft. “That’s an election that was put under the microscope because it was so close,” Foley said.
Another broad review by Dr. M.V. Hood at the University of Georgia went through every ballot cast in Georgia’s 2006 mid-term elections, and compared the votes cast to data from the Office of Vital Statistics.
In an election where 2.6 million votes were cast, Hood found about 5,000 people who were registered to vote on Election Day who were probably deceased, a number that he said is not unusual.
“People are dying every day, there’s always a need to take them off the voter roll and there’s always going to be a lag there,” Hood said. “But then we said, of these people, how many of them voted?” Of those, Hood found about 70 questionable votes. An investigation into each vote found all were mistakes- either clerical errors by poll workers or inaccurate data entry.
“We weren’t able to find any dead people who voted in Georgia in 2006,” Hood said. “And that’s why we titled our article as we did about dead people— they just don’t vote like they used to.”
Even as incidents of fraud have dropped, warnings about the vulnerability of elections have continued. Foley said the possibility of tampering can’t be dismissed entirely, but that the systems to make voting more reliable should not also make it onerous.
“Aggressively purging the voter rolls makes it difficult for eligible people to vote. On the other hand if you leave the names of dead folks or otter folks on there too long then that bloats the voter rolls and that’s a problem too,” he said. “Frankly, our system is struggling to balance the two.”
Dale Ho, Director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said that warnings of dead people voting are often part of a separate effort to implement restrictive voting laws, like i.d. requirements.
“It’s a minimal problem, and to the extent that it exists, it’s usually mistakes,” Ho said. “What voter i.d. laws do is prevent a lot of people who are alive from voting. To us the cost-benefit analysis is pretty obvious.”
Of the eight elections experts contacted by the Daily Beast, all described votes by “dead people” on a mass scale as nearly impossible and votes cast under the name of a dead person as almost always the result of human error.
“It would be very hard to organize a conspiracy to do this. We just don’t see it happening.” Rick Hasen, professor at University of California Irvine School of Law. “What looks like dead people voting is actually administrative error.”
Alex Keyssar, professor of history and social policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government said that possible for an individual to vote in the name of a dead person, but “in terms of it happening in any widespread way, it strikes me as completely implausible.”
To have an impact on an election, Keyssar said thousands of people would need to do it and even then, it’s hard to see why they would. ““One vote and you’re committing a felony. It’s not much of a trade off,” he said. “Will there be incidents of confusion or possible malfunctions? Yes. But I am more concerned about the way in which confusion over the new i.d. laws could suppress votes than about a hacking or attack on the integrity of the elections.”
To Keyssar’s point, a recent investigation into South Carolina’s 2012 elections concluded that no fraud in the name of dead people had happened, despite widespread claims of by state party officials of “zombie voting.” As legislators were pushing a voter i.d. law, several said they knew “for a fact” that hundreds of dead people’s identities were being stolen to vote in South Carolina. Rep. Alan Clemmons, the chief supporter of the photo ID law, declared that, “We must have certainty in South Carolina that zombies aren’t voting.”
But a 13-month statewide investigation found that not one “dead person” had voted and that all of the rest of the zombies voting were really just aberrations caused by all-too-human clerical errors. Just one person in the investigation has cast an absentee ballot, but died before the election.
The good news for that dead voter: If you vote absentee in South Carolina before you die, under state law your vote, dead person, still counts.