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‘That’s Not What I Said’: TMZ Falsely Reports Concerns of Election Officials

Yesterday TMZ posted an article declaring voter fraud to be “a real concern”. (Yes, that TMZ.) Here's how the story begins:

NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and most blogs are trying to convince you there is virtually NO EVIDENCE of voter fraud, so Trump's fears are bogus … but we drilled down and some officials who run the voting systems around the country are VERY worried about fraudulent voting.

But here’s the thing: Two of the three election officials the story cites told us TMZ attributes things to them they did not say, and that they have no concerns whatsoever about the possibility of voter fraud.

“That’s not what I said,” Marcy Crawford, the Republican Deputy Commissioner of the Board of Elections for Allegany County, New York, said after we read what TMZ had attributed to her. The story does not quote Crawford directly, but says that Crawford "tells us voter fraud in her county is a real concern. She says everyone's talking about it in her office."

While Crawford said she told TMZ she had “heard talk” of concerns of voter fraud elsewhere, she also said she told TMZ she had no concerns about actual fraud in her southern New York county, nor does anyone else in her office. Crawford’s colleague, Democratic Deputy Commissioner Barbara Broughton, said she was present for the TMZ interview, and confirmed that TMZ misreported the conversation. Broughton stressed that every step of the process is double checked and bipartisan. “I don’t see how [fraud] is even possible,’ she said.

John Arntz, director of the Department of Elections in San Francisco County, California, also said he never told TMZ he was concerned about fraud. While he said TMZ accurately described how a voter's identity is checked in California — that poll workers must confirm voters’ names and addresses — he said TMZ falsely reported that he “concedes that it leaves the system open to fraud.”

“I did not say that this means our system is open to fraud since there are many checks and balances in place regarding the casting of ballots,” Arntz told us. “In the 14 years since I’ve been here, voter fraud has not been an issue and I don’t expect it to be an issue going forward.”

Casey Carver, a spokesperson for TMZ, said the site “stands behind our story and it accurately reflects the information we were provided.” She did not respond to questions about the officials being cited inaccurately.

The story does not have a byline. But Crawford said the TMZ reporter identified herself as Heather Ross. A TMZ producer by that name did not respond to an email sent to the address listed on her Twitter account.

The story focused on the fact that some states use signatures to verify a voter’s identity:

States “shockingly rely on the ability of precinct poll workers to match a person’s signature with the signature on the voter registration form. So a 70-year-old lady trying to manage a precinct is supposed to do what trained handwriting experts do in court … ferret out the frauds.”

(Ellipsis in the original.)

Both Arntz and Crawford contradicted that. Voters, Crawford said, must verify their names and addresses, and poll workers also have access to the birth date listed in every voter’s registration information, which they can also use as a check. Crawford said if poll workers have any concerns that a person might not be who they say they are, they can call elections officials who will sort out the problem.

The third official TMZ cited, Suffolk County New York Elections Commissioner Nick LaLota did not specifically respond to questions regarding whether TMZ accurately quoted him in the piece, nor did he respond to questions about whether he believes fraud has happened or will happen in Suffolk County. He did confirm he thinks voter fraud is a concern. “The main way a poll worker ensures the identity of the purported voter is by a signature comparison,” he told ProPublica by email. “Our election inspectors are being asked to ensure the integrity of the election with one hand tied behind their back!”

In fact, New York law allows election workers to do much more than check signatures. “It’s one point in a verification process with many,” said Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law's Democracy Program. “Voters provide all sorts of identifying information [in their registration]: Their name, their date of birth, their address, and sometimes even their drivers license and Social Security number.”

TMZ’s story also claims that ”counties and states are increasingly using signature verification in place of IDs,” which is false. In fact only six states rely on signature matches to verify voters’ identities. Most states without voter ID laws use signatures as a last resort.

The piece has now been shared on social media hundreds of times, and has more than 4,000 comments. Today, it is the second “most commented” article on TMZ's site. Other media organizations, like the Independent Review Journal, and the International Business Times have picked up the story. Trump supporters are also using it as evidence to support his rigging claims:

As we pointed out in a tweetstorm directed at TMZ yesterday, impersonating a voter is exceedingly rare. "What we're talking about is people going into a polling place and pretending to be someone else," said Rick Hasen, an elections expert and a professor at University of California, Irvine School of Law. This type of fraud is incredibly hard to pull off.

"You'd have to know who isn't voting, and then you'd also have to know that person wouldn't be recognized if you went into their polling place and pretended to be them, since polling places are often run by neighbors," Hasen said. You'd also have to look as if you could be about the age of the voter you are impersonating, and mimic their signature to the point of passing. To do this on a mass scale — to the point it could tip elections — would be essentially impossible, Hasen added. He said he has never found a single example of this type of fraud impacting any election.

No widely accepted research has found in-person voter fraud is actually a real concern. A study by a Columbia University professor tracked accusations of fraud for two years, and found that the vast majority of reports were "false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error." Another study done at Arizona State University found zero successful prosecutions for voter fraud in five states between 2012 and 2016. A study of 14 years of voting (about 1 billion ballots) found a total of 31 credible instances of in-person voter fraud.

And even these extremely rare cases of in-person voter impersonation are generally caught before they are counted, said Hasen. "Even if we had these perfect criminals who could figure out how to perfectly sign for someone else, it’s not going to do the trick," he said. "Your neighbor can come in to vote, look at their name on the roll and say, 'Hey, someone else has voted as me,' and that puts an end to that."

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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