What are the consequences of voting twice in an election?

President Trump has in recent months roiled an election already upended by the coronavirus pandemic, alleging repeatedly without evidence that voting by mail poses security concerns. 

The president sparked further criticism when he suggested that supporters in North Carolina vote in person after casting their absentee ballots. This week, officials in Georgia said they were investigating 1,000 cases of people voting twice in state elections — though questions remain as to whether they did so intentionally. 

With Election Day approaching, here’s a look at what the consequences are of voting twice in an election.

Is voting twice illegal?

Voting twice is illegal in federal elections under federal law. Voters who cast “votes more than once in an election” will be fined “not more than $10,000” and “imprisoned not more than five years, or both,” according to federal law

State penalties vary across the country. According to a database from the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 28 states say it is a felony to vote twice in the same election. A number of other states classify it as an infraction or misdemeanor. 

What happens if someone gets caught voting twice?

Penalties for double voting vary by state, though they can include jail time.

Several states mandate that those found guilty of violating their election laws serve prison time or pay a fine. For instance, Pennsylvania says those who vote twice can be fined up to $15,000 and/or serve as much as seven years behind bars. Other penalties include serving parole and losing voting rights. 

However, most people who vote twice do not face lengthy prison sentences. Prosecutors have a fair amount of leeway in deciding how strictly they want to go after voters who cast two ballots.

The decision, according to Steven Huefner, professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, is often based on intent, with prosecutors determining if the votes were an “innocent mistake,” such as forgetting that a voter had already sent in an absentee ballot, or an “intentional effort to manipulate the results.”

How common is it?

Voting twice, like all other forms of voter fraud, is exceedingly rare.

“Before the chief executive United States suggested and encouraged it … not that often,” said Justin Levitt, an election expert and professor at Loyola Law School, when asked how frequently people vote twice.

“Of the very few times that it happens, most are due sometimes to mistakes,” he added, saying mistakes include voters forgetting they had already cast mail-in ballots, confusion over having two residences in different jurisdictions and false flags if two voters have the same name and date of birth.

Voting twice is also viewed as a particularly ineffective form of swaying an election if done intentionally and easy for election monitors to notice.

“As a method of attempting to gain an electoral advantage, it’s a pretty shoddy method,” Levitt said.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) raised eyebrows this week when he said that 1,000 people had voted twice in the state’s primary elections in June and said prosecutors may press for felony charges after an investigation is completed.

Raffensperger told reporters that approximately 150,000 voters who applied for absentee ballots also appeared in person at polling places on election day. But that high figure could potentially be the result of a data or clerical error.

“It is often the case that a first cut of the voter list of who’s voted will raise flags about a number of possible instances of double voting that upon investigation just evaporate,” Huefner of Ohio State University said. 

“I think it could be a number of things, it could be a combination of sloppy data reconciliation and a little bit of administrative error or typographical error. But I want to be very clear, I don’t know,” added Levitt of Loyola Law School. “That would be really big, that would be a sizable number well beyond the norm, but I have my doubts.”

What safeguards are in place to prevent double voting?

Double voting is particularly easy for monitors to catch given safeguards that are in place to ensure that each voter casts just one ballot. 

Every jurisdiction keeps a master list of registered voters, which is consistently updated when absentee ballots are requested and cast and then on hand at in-person voting stations to ensure that every person who votes has not mailed in a ballot beforehand.

Voting twice is “really hard for election officials not to notice,” Huefner said. 

Could Trump’s remarks increase instances of double voting?

While double voting is easy to spot, experts still fear that the president’s remarks will increase voters’ attempts to cast two ballots. 

Trump earlier this month encouraged supporters in North Carolina to attempt to vote both by mail and in person so that they — as he put it — could test the integrity of the system.

“If it’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote. If it isn’t tabulated, they’ll be able to vote. So that’s the way it is. And that’s what they should do,” Trump said.

He later encouraged voters in Pennsylvania to do the same. His remarks have fueled concerns among Democrats who have criticized him for attempting to sow doubt in the results of November’s election. And they have drawn criticism since voting twice is illegal.

“I certainly think at this point it’s almost sure there will be some increase, but I hope it would still be relatively tiny. But in some sense the cat’s out of the bag with the comments Trump’s already made. It has to be that there will be some number, even if it’s small, who in fact will be influenced to do just that,” said Huefner.

“I think that is really dangerous, especially for the people who are listening to them,” added Levitt, who noted people who follow Trump’s advice run the risk of being prosecuted. “‘The president told me to,’ is not a defense in court.”

Tags Absentee ballot Donald Trump Donald Trump Elections Electoral fraud Voter registration Voting

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