Vote fraud

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Vote fraud is illegal interference with the process of an election. Acts of fraud tend to involve affecting vote counts to bring about a desired election outcome, whether by increasing the vote share of the favored candidate, depressing the vote share of the rival candidates, or both.

Election fraud is illegal in most countries including dictatorships likely to both control the electoral process and excuse any measures that achieve a desired result.

Extreme examples of election fraud are sham elections that are a common event in dictatorial regimes that still feel the need to establish some element of public legitimacy, some even showing 100% of eligible voters voting on behalf of the régime. Most people only call a regime democratic as long as electoral fraud is rare, isolated, and small, or that electoral fraud by opposing groups roughly cancels the effects.

Electoral fraud is not limited to political polls and can happen in any kind of election where the potential gain is worth the risk for the cheater, as in elections for labor union officials, student councils, sports judging, and the awarding of merit to books, films, music, or television programming.

Despite many known instances of electoral fraud, it remains a difficult phenomenon to study and characterize. This follows from its inherent illegality. Harsh penalties aimed at deterring electoral fraud make it likely that any individuals who perpetrate acts of fraud do so with the expectation that it either will not be discovered or will be excused after the fact.

The introduction of secret ballots in the 19th century made electoral fraud more difficult, forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery. Secret balloting appears to have been first implemented in the Australian state of Tasmania in 1856. The first President of the United States elected using a secret ballot was president Grover Cleveland in 1892.

Many dictatorships hold sham elections in which results predictably show that nearly 100% of all eligible voters vote and that nearly 100% of those eligible voters vote for the prescribed (often only) list of candidates for office or for referendums that favor the Party in power irrespective of economic conditions and the cruelties of the government.


Voter intimidation and coercion

  • Intimidation of voters that prevents them from voting, such as minority voter suppression.
  • Disrupting voting in polling stations in areas with unwanted political tendencies for example with bomb threats to polling places[1] or other sabotage, including ballots, ballot boxes, or voting machines.
  • Using caging lists for voter suppression
  • For example, in 2004, police stationed outside a Cook County, Illinois, polling place were allegedly requesting photo ID and telling voters (falsely) that if they had been convicted of a felony, they could not vote.[2]
  • Also in 2004, for example, In Pima, Arizona, voters at multiple polls were allegedly confronted by an individual, wearing a black t-shirt with “US Constitution Enforcer” and a military-style belt that gave the appearance he was armed. He asked voters if they were citizens, accompanied by a cameraman who filmed the encounters.[2]
  • Voters often complain about misinformation campaigns via flyers or phone calls encouraging them to vote on a day other than election day or spreading false information regarding their right to vote. In Polk County, Florida, in 2004, for example, voters allegedly received a call telling them to vote on November 3 (the election was on November 2). Also in 2004, in Wisconsin and elsewhere voters allegedly received flyers that said, “If you already voted in any election this year, you can’t vote in the Presidential Election”, implying that those who had voted in earlier primary elections were ineligible to vote. Also, “If anybody in your family has ever been found guilty of anything you can’t vote in the Presidential Election.” Finally, “If you violate any of these laws, you can get 10 years in prison and your children will be taken away from you.”[3][4]
  • Another simple, but notorious method of voter intimidation is the shoe polish method, which is often used in company towns. This method entails coating the voting machines lever or button of the opposing candidate(s) with shoe polish. To understand how this works, take the example of an employee of the company who, against the advice of the party in power, votes for the opposing candidate(s). After they leave the voting booth, a conspirator to the fraud (a precinct captain or other local V.I.P.) will handshake the voter. The conspirator will then subtly check their hand for any shoe polish and will note that the voter has left some shoe polish after the handshake. Soon afterward that unfortunate voter gets fired from his job.
  • Buying or coercing votes from persons who would normally vote for another candidate or would not vote at all, but who are nevertheless eligible to vote.
  • Intimidation of voters that alters their vote. "Four-legged voting," where precinct workers would pull the levers on voting machines instead of the voter.
  • Absentee and other remote voting can be more open to some forms of intimidation and coercion as the voter does not have the protection and privacy of the polling location.
  • In Britain, one historically popular technique has been long known as granny farming, after a contemptuous slang designation for retirement homes. In this, party activists visit retirement homes, purportedly to help the elderly and immobile exercise their voting rights. Residents are asked to fill out 'absentee voter' forms, allowing them a proxy or postal vote. When the forms are signed and gathered, they are then secretly rewritten as applications for proxy votes, naming party activists or their friends and relatives as the proxies. These people, unknown to the voter, then cast the vote for the party of their choice. This trick relies on elderly care home residents typically being absent-minded, or suffering from dementia. A case for this had occurred into the United States, when Kwame Kilpatrick was running for reelection as mayor of Detroit. Kilpatrick supporters had nursing home residents sign absentee ballots which were either already marked or later marked as voting for Kilpatrick.

Physical tampering

  • Ballot stuffing, also called "ghost voting."
  • Booth capturing is a persistent problem in Indian democracy where thugs of one party "capture" a polling booth and stamp their votes, threatening everyone.
  • Theft or destruction of ballot boxes.
  • Destroying election material in order to annul results for individual polling stations or even whole constituencies.

Physical tampering with voting machines

  • Change the software of a voting machine to shift votes between candidates. A demonstration how this can be done on a Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems) AccuVote-TS was conducted by the Center for Information Technology Policy, at Princeton University.[5]. Another demonstration was shown on Dutch TV by the group "Wij vertrouwen stemcomputers niet".[6]
  • Altering or replacing the hardware of the voting machine, such as inserting a circuit board using a Man in the middle attack technique to manipulate recorded votes. The board could be placed between keyboard, display and voting storage. In the case of Nedap machines this would allow manipulation without breaking the seals covering the central unit.[7]. Another place for a man in the middle attack could be between the central unit and the printer, but this would only be useful on machines where the stored votes will not be verified by other means like a display.
  • Altering voting machines to favor one candidate over another, for example by jamming a button or changing the sensitive area of a touchscreen.[8]
  • Intentional misconfiguration, for example altering the ballot design to misidentify a candidates party.
  • Voting machines might also be subject to Van Eck phreaking on the display or keyboard, compromising the secrecy of the votes.[9]
  • One voting machine possibly subject to ballot stuffing if the voter is allowed unsupervised access, is the Sequoia Voting Systems AVC Edge touchscreen. These machines have a yellow button on the bottom (the reverse side of the touch screen) which if pressed after a valid vote will set the machine in "manual mode" bringing up a blank ballot allowing an additional vote.[10]. This is an optional feature not found on all AVC Edge touchscreens, and is programmed to alert supervisors with two audible beeps.
  • Abusing the administrative access to the machine by election officials might also allow individuals to vote multiple times.
  • Electronic, and mechanical voting machines can be subject to different types of electoral fraud, as potential fraud could be incorrectly categorized as a technical problem.

A list of other threats to voting systems is kept by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.[11]

The most comprehensive study on attacking electronic voting machines has been compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice.[12]

Inflation or deflation of voters lists

  • Registering false voters such as the deceased or even fictitious persons.
  • Subverting voter registration rules, such as with "fagot voters." (persons who had land assigned to them prior to an election and removed immediately after an election to meet requirements to vote),[13] through "colonization" (the process of transporting groups of men from other cities and lodging them in flophouses).[14]

Social engineering

  • People pretending to help elderly or blind persons with their vote.
  • Election officials misinforming voters of when their vote is recorded and later recording it themselves. This apparently happened during municipality elections in Landerd, Netherlands in 2006 where a candidate was also an election official and got the unusual amount of 181 votes in the polling place where he was working. In the other three polling places together he got 11 votes.[15] Only circumstantial evidence could be found because the voting machine was a direct-recording electronic voting machine, in a poll by a local newspaper the results were totally different. The case is still under prosecution.[16]
  • As a spoiling tactic, running candidates and creating political parties with similar names as the main rivals in a constituency with the aim that enough voters will be misled into voting for the false candidate or party to influence the results.

By voters

  • Impersonating a voter.
  • Voting in multiple precincts, carousel voting. Men who were known to sell their vote and vote in multiple precincts were known as "floaters."[14] In the United States, fifty-two people have been convicted of federal election fraud for voting in multiple locations since 2002.[17] In some countries like El Salvador, Namibia or Afghanistan voters get a finger marked with election ink to prevent multiple votes. In the Afghanistan elections in 2005 this didn't work well because the ink could be rubbed off.
  • Voter import: In Bulgaria the controversial Movement for Rights and Freedoms is said to combine the former two, by "importing" voters from Turkey at the day of the election, who then vote in every single polling station within a city. Similarly, in Malaysia immigrants from neighbouring Philippines and Indonesia were given citizenship together with voting rights in order for a political party to "dominate" the state of Sabah in a controversial process referred to as Project IC.[18]
  • Vote selling: This is possible as long as a voter has a way to prove how he voted. Because of this a secret ballot is preferred and postal- or internet voting is just accepted as an exception in most electoral systems. (also see Blocks of Five) In Mexico and several other places, voters willing to sell their vote are asked to take a picture of their ballot with a cellphone camera to validate their payment.
  • Changing parties: voters (in elections for party leader) who change membership of parties in order to elect a weaker candidate to run against the leader of their original party.

During tabulation in the polling place

  • Bribery, corruption or threatening of election officials.
  • Destroying all ballots if the balance was not as desired.
  • Tampering with tabulation software (applicable only to computer assisted tabulation). This apparently happened in the Mexican general election, 1988.[citation needed]
  • Spoiling votes: for example, by marking more candidates than allowed.
  • Counting electronic ballots of voting machines, usually memory cards, more than once if they contain votes as wanted by the fraudster. The opposite is to let them disappear in case of unwanted votes, this is equivalent to stealing a whole ballot box.[19]
  • Obstructing vote counting.[20]
  • Double marking. A corrupt election official will conceal a piece of pencil lead underneath his fingernail, in which he covertly marks an unvoted box in an area where the maximum number of votes has already been cast. Since this ballot is then considered overvoted, it is discarded, effectively throwing out the voter's vote.

During central tabulation of the results

Through legislative means

  • Gerrymandering (drawing voting district lines in such a way as to obtain a favorable result) or including prison inmates in a local population are also often argued to be forms of electoral fraud.
  • Creating additional barriers to vote can also be considered fraud, such as requiring extensive forms of identification.
  • Mandating voter matching standards be too strict (purging voters from the rolls and disenfranchising eligible voters) or too loose (leaving ineligible voters on the rolls and making the system vulnerable to fraud).
  • Creating election deadlines that are unreasonable to certain portions of the electorate, such as requiring active duty military ballots to be delivered before it would be possible for them to be mailed.
  • Disqualification of candidates by arbitrary means. One example was the 1990 mayoral race in Washington DC when Jesse Jackson considered running for DC mayor, which concerned incumbent mayor Marion Barry who had been polling very low and felt he could not compete with Jackson's popularity. Since Jackson made most of his money from speeches, Barry ordered the DC Council to pass a law making it illegal for anyone to run for mayor of Washington DC who makes more than $10,000 a year from honorarium. This became known as the "Jesse Jackson law", as the sole intent of the law was to declare Jackson unsuitable for election. [21]

Smear campaign

  • Smear campaigns are illegal in the Philippines and can thus be considered election fraud.
  • Laws exist in the UK to prevent untrue statements being made about candidates—see Miranda Grell for a 2007 case.

Election fraud in legislature

Election fraud in legislature is qualitatively different because the number of voters is smaller. For example,

  • The two-thirds majority Hitler needed to pass the Enabling Act, which gave him dictatorial power, was only attained by arresting enough members of the opposition. The act had a two-year expiration date, which had the option for renewal. After the start of the Second World War, the last opposition to the act's renewal was extinguished. Hitler treated the Enabling Act's renewal as a matter of appearance, knowing he could get the renewal rubber stamped by a Reichstag made entirely of Nazi party members, even getting a renewal as late as 1944 and planning on getting a rubber stamped renewal in 1946.[citation needed]
  • The controversial method of using a paper-clip or bubblegum to jam a representative's voting button in absence.[22]
  • In 2004 security expert Bruce Schneier published a theoretical paper how election fraud in the papal election could be done.[23]

Fraud prevention

The best way to protect the electorate from electoral fraud is to have an election process which is completely transparent to all voters, from nomination of candidates through casting of the votes and tabulation. A key feature in insuring the integrity of any part of the electoral process is a strict chain of custody.

To prevent fraud in central tabulation, there has to be a public list of the results from every single polling place. This is the only way for voters to prove that the results they witnessed in their election office are correctly incorporated into the totals.

Various forms of statistics can be indicators for election fraud e.g. exit polls which are very different from the final results. Having reliable exit polls could keep the amount of fraud low to avoid a controversy. Other indicators might be unusual high numbers of invalid ballots, overvoting or undervoting. It has to be kept in mind that most statistics do not reflect the types of election fraud which prevent citizens from voting at all like intimidation or misinformation.

There may, however, be a problem with exit-polls or other verifications methods dependent on the honesty of the voters; for instance, in the Czech Republic (previously part of Czechoslovakia), some voters are afraid or ashamed to admit that they voted for the Communist Party, often claiming to have voted for other party than Communists (exit polls in 2002 gave Communist party 2-3 percents lower gain than was the actual case).


In countries with strong laws and effective legal systems, lawsuits can be brought against those who have allegedly committed fraud; but determent with legal prosecution would not be enough. Although the penalties for getting caught may be severe, the rewards for succeeding are likely to be worth the risk. The rewards range from benefits in contracting to total control of a country.

In Germany there are currently calls for reform of these laws because lawsuits can be and are usually prolonged by the newly elected Bundestag[24]

Election observation

International observers (bilateral and multilateral) may be invited to observe the elections (examples include election observation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), European Union election observation missions, observation missions of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as international observation organized by NGOs, such as European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), etc.). Some countries also invite foreign observers (i.e. bi-lateral observation, as opposed to multi-lateral observation by international observers).

In addition, national legislations of countries often permit domestic observation. Domestic election observers can be either partisan (i.e. representing interests of one or a group of election contestants) or non-partisant (usually done by civil society groups). Legislations of different countries permit various forms and extents of international and domestic election observation.

Election observation is also prescribed by various international legal instrucments. For example, paragraph 8 of the 1990 Copenhagen Document states that "The [OSCE] participating States consider that the presence of observers, both foreign and domestic, can enhance the electoral process for States in which elections are taking place. They therefore invite observers from any other CSCE participating States and any appropriate private institutions and organizations who may wish to do so to observe the course of their national election proceedings, to the extent permitted by law. They will also endeavour to facilitate similar access for election proceedings held below the national level. Such observers will undertake not to interfere in the electoral proceedings".

Examples from the USA include:

Critics note that observers cannot spot certain types of election fraud like targeted voter suppression or manipulated software of voting machines.

End-to-end Auditablity

End-to-end auditable voting systems provide voters with a receipt to allow them to verify their vote was cast correctly, and an audit mechanism to verify that the results were tabulated correctly and all votes were cast by valid voters. However, the ballot receipt does not permit voters to prove to others how they voted, since this would open the door towards forced voting and blackmail. End-to-end systems include Punchscan and Scantegrity, the latter being an add-on to optical scan systems instead of a replacement.

Testing and certification of electronic voting


One method for verifying voting machine accuracy is Parallel Testing, the process of using an independent set of results compared against the original machine results. Parallel testing can be done prior to or during an election. During an election, one form of parallel testing is the VVPAT. This method is only effective if statistically significant numbers of voters verify that their intended vote matches both the electronic and paper votes.

On election day, a statistically significant number of voting machines can be randomly selected from polling locations and used for testing. This can be used to detect potential fraud or malfunction unless manipulated software would only start to cheat after a certain event like a voter pressing a special key combination (Or a machine might cheat only if someone doesn't perform the combination, which requires more insider access but fewer voters).

Another form of testing is Logic & Accuracy Testing (L&A), pre-election testing of voting machines using test votes to determine if they are functioning correctly.

Another method to insure the integrity of electronic voting machines is independent software verification and certification. Once software is certified, code signing can insure the software certified is identical to that which is used on election day. Some argue certification would be more effective if voting machine software was publicly available or open source.

Certification and testing processes conducted publicly and with oversight from interested parties can promote transparency in the election process. The integrity of those conducting testing can be questioned.

Testing and certification can prevent voting machines from being a black box where voters can not be sure that counting inside is done as intended.


  1. Did bomb threat stifle vote? (Capital Times)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Intimidation and Deceptive Practices EP365
  3. Intimidation and Deceptive Practices
  4. Incidents Of Voter Intimidation & Suppression
  5. Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine
  6. Nedap/Groenendaal ES3B voting computer a security analysis
  7. Nedap/Groenendaal ES3B voting computer a security analysis (chapter 7.1)
  8. Test run for voting (Miami Herald, 10/31/2006)
  9. Nedap/Groenendaal ES3B voting computer a security analysis (chapter 6)
  10. Button on e-voting machine allows multiple votes
  11. Threats to Voting Systems (NIST)
  12. The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World
  13. Williamson, Chilton (1968). American Suffrage from Property to Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press. ASIN B000FMPMK6. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Saltman, Roy G. (January 2006). The History and Politics of Voting Technology. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-6392-4. 
  15. Statement of voting machine manufacturer Nedap (German)
  16. Raadslid Landerd is stuk minder populair in schaduwverkiezing (dutch)
  17. Let The Recounts Begin
  18. Sadiq, Kamal (2005). "When States Prefer Non-Citizens Over Citizens: Conflict Over Illegal Immigration into Malaysia" (PDF). International Studies Quarterly 49: 101–122. doi:10.1111/j.0020-8833.2005.00336.x. Retrieved on 2008-04-23.</cite>  </li>
  19. ABC News: Hackable Democracy?
  20. The best defense is a good offense, so VOTE!
  21. "Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson" by Kenneth Timmerman
  22. Is "Ghost" Voting Acceptable?
  23. Bruce Schneier: Hacking the Papal Election, April 15, 2005
  24. Reform der Wahlprüfung (German)
  25. Justice department dispatches election monitors (, 6. November 2006)
  26. Voter Protection Resource Center
  27. </ol>

External links