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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Was Gov. Cooper Correct In Saying Voter Impersonation Is Rare?

Poll workers check in voters at McCrorey YMCA on Beatties Ford Road in Charlotte in November 2020.
Erin Keever
Poll workers check in voters at McCrorey YMCA on Beatties Ford Road in Charlotte in November 2020.

It's time now for a fact check of North Carolina politics. This week, we're looking at remarks Gov. Roy Cooper recently made on CNN regarding voter impersonation.

Speaking to the network’s Jake Tapper, Cooper said, "You do need security to make sure that people's votes count and that people aren't cheating. But the problem is you don't see widespread problems with things that they're trying to attack, like voter ID. People don't pretend to be someone else to go in and vote."

Joining us now to assess that is WRAL's Paul Specht.

Marshall Terry: First, Paul, give us some context. Why was Gov. Cooper on CNN talking about this?

Paul Specht: Gov. Cooper was on CNN to talk about new election laws passed in Georgia. It includes voter ID and touches on provisional ballots and several other things. It's possible listeners have heard more about the backlash to the law than the actual specifics. But Jake Tapper, CNN's anchor, brought on Gov. Cooper just to give his perspective as a Democratic governor in the South. Cooper comes from a state that has tried to enact voter ID over the last decade, failing after a push in 2013 and ultimately last year getting final approval from the courts to move forward with it.

Terry: North Carolina Republican lawmakers have introduced their own voting legislation. What would it do?

Specht: That's right. This bill does not specifically address voter impersonation or voter ID. It deals more with things the Republicans say would streamline the election and what they say would reinstill some confidence.

What they mean by that is it would put new deadlines on absentee voting so that ballots would have to arrive before the polls close. You've probably heard a lot of Republicans raising concerns with absentee ballots that were being counted after Election Day. This aims to address that, among other things.

Terry: Now, going back to what Cooper said on CNN, was he right when he suggested that voter impersonation isn't a widespread problem?

Specht: He is right. While it has happened and it's incorrect to say it never happens, he's right that it's not a widespread problem. Experts say that it's virtually nonexistent. When you look at the number of reports over recent elections versus the number of ballots, which is in the millions, at one point over a 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, there were actually more people hit by lightning than had committed voter impersonation fraud. And that blew me away. PolitiFact looked into that several years ago and found that stat to be true.

But voter impersonation, in particular, is sort of low on the list in terms of fraud that occurs. There are many types of voter fraud. And I hope if people have one takeaway from this, that it's this: voter fraud can come in many ways. It can be people falsifying information in order to register to vote. It can come in people voting twice. It can come in people voting in one state and also in another. It can come with felons voting when they're not allowed. But ultimately, voter impersonation is at the bottom of that list.

Terry: As part of your reporting, you looked at why voter impersonation is statistically rare. What did you find?

Specht: Experts pointed out that this is a high-risk, low-reward practice. And what I mean by that is one person is not likely to tip the scales of an election. So the reward there is minimal, but the risk is high. There are a lot of laws around elections and who is allowed to vote, what's required and things like that. So in order to pull off some sort of conspiracy to actually tip the scales of an election, you need a lot of things to go right — and not get caught.

You would need to hire a bunch of people to go to the polls and pretend to be someone else. And when they do that, you'd have to hope that the people they're pretending to be had not already voted. And then you would have to hope that those people who are in on this scheme vote the way that you want them to, that you're actually paying them to. And then you have to sort of repeat this process in a large scale before anyone notices. And that is just not very likely to happen.

And experts on this issue have said it's almost an irrational thing to do. And in fact, when we reached out to the North Carolina elections board, one thing they mentioned is that in cases where someone pretends to be someone else on multiple occasions, they've seen people casting honorary ballots on behalf of a loved one who just died. And in some cases, they don't know that that's not legal, that you can't do that. That's more along the lines of what you see when it comes to voter impersonation.

Terry: How did you rate what Gov. Roy Cooper said?

Specht: We rated this "mostly true." It would have gotten a "full true," except we didn't want to give people the impression that it never happens. It does happen in a handful of cases. But he's right that statistically it almost never happens and has not been shown to actually sway any elections.

Terry: Thank you, Paul.

Specht: Thank you.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.