What Are Voter Fraud and Election Fraud?

Understand what's at stake in voter fraud and election fraud cases.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated September 20, 2022

During the lead up to and after a general, primary, midterm, or special election, references to "voter fraud" and "election fraud" gain attention in news headlines. What do these terms mean? The definitions for voter fraud and election fraud tend to get interchanged frequently. For this article, we'll separate them out as follows. Voter fraud will cover fraud specifically by voters (such as double voting), and election fraud will cover fraud involving the election process (such as tampering with ballots). Both crimes can carry serious penalties.

And, although it won't be discussed here, federal statutes criminalize voter and election fraud as well.

What Is Voter Fraud?

One way to think of voter fraud is unlawful voting by an individual. Every state defines voter fraud (sometimes called unlawful or illegal voting) differently. But, generally speaking, a person commits the crime of voter fraud by doing any of the following acts, intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

  • votes more than once in the same election (double voting)
  • casts a ballot in the name of an ineligible voter (such as a deceased voter or a voter who moved out of the election district)
  • registers to vote using a fraudulent name or address
  • votes with a fraudulent ballot, or
  • votes despite being ineligible to vote (such as a nonresident, noncitizen, or disqualified voter).

What Proof is Needed in Voter Fraud Cases?

In most states, a prosecutor must prove that the person committed voter fraud intentionally or knowingly—not by mistake. For instance, a person who mistakenly transposes two digits of their address on their voter registration form hasn't committed intentional fraud.

But some states' law don't require fraudulent intent—any mistake on the part of the voter can be grounds for prosecution. In these states, a person who makes a good-faith effort to determine eligibility but is mistaken could face criminal charges. Criminal statutes of this nature are referred to as "strict liability" offenses. For a strict liability offense, the prosecutor only needs to prove the illegal act was committed.

What Are the Penalties for Voter Fraud?

State penalties for voter fraud vary, but most states make it a felony offense (usually punishable by a year or more in prison). Some states impose different penalties based on what conduct is involved (such as double voting versus fraudulent registration). Kentucky makes it a felony to knowingly vote more than once but makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly vote in the wrong precinct. (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 119.165 (2022.) Other state laws base penalties on the person's culpability (blameworthiness). For instance, a person who knowingly votes when not registered or authorized commits a felony in Indiana. But a person who recklessly votes when ineligible commits a misdemeanor. (Ind. Code Ann. §§ 3-14-2-9, -10 (2022).)

What Is Election Fraud?

We will discuss election fraud in terms of fraud involving the election process. Election fraud can involve unlawful acts by election officials or acts done by others that threaten the integrity (reliability and trustworthiness) of the election process.

Election Fraud by Election Officials: Examples and Penalties

Election officials, whether at the local or state level, carry the heavy responsibility of ensuring elections are run fairly and accurately. The laws covering election administration reflect this responsibility—covering everything from how a candidate gets on the ballot to duties of poll workers, counting of ballots, and operating voting machines. Here are just some of the election fraud crimes covered in state laws.

Crimes. It's unlawful for an election official to knowingly or intentionally:

  • receive ineligible votes
  • reject votes of qualified voters
  • alter or tamper with ballots or election documents
  • falsify election returns or falsely report votes, or
  • tamper with, damage, or destroy ballot boxes or voting equipment.

Penalties. Similar to voter fraud, the penalties for fraud by an election official vary. Crimes reflecting neglect in an official's duties tend to fall under the category of misdemeanors, whereas crimes reflecting corruption or intentional misconduct can carry serious felony penalties. Soliciting (requesting, commanding, or encouraging) an election official to commit fraud is also a crime.

Election Fraud by Other Individuals: Examples and Penalties

Individuals outside the election process can face serious penalties if they commit acts that threaten the integrity of the election process.

Crimes. Most states make it a crime to:

  • intimidate, threaten, or coerce a voter in an effort to influence their vote or decision to vote
  • offer a bribe or other compensation to influence someone's vote
  • tamper with a person's ballot
  • make a counterfeit ballot, or
  • interfere with a voter's access to the polling place (physically or by deception).

Penalties. Penalties for the above crimes range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Felony penalties typically apply when the conduct involves corruption, bribery, or threats of harm.

Legal Resources

If you've been charged with voter or election fraud, speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Resources on Voter Intimidation

If you believe an election official or other individual is unlawfully restricting your right to vote, you might want to speak with a civil rights attorney or the police if you have been threatened or harassed. You can also contact the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE or go to the website at 866ourvote.org.

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