A misleading claim that more than 21,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania are dead is circulating online. The figure comes from a conservative group that failed to convince a federal judge in October that its list was accurate.
Headlines claiming that “21,000 DEAD PEOPLE” are registered to vote in Pennsylvania have been racking up shares on social media amid an effort to spread the unfounded claim that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
High-profile conservative figures — including Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — have promoted a story with a similarly suggestive headline.
The case was filed on Oct. 15, about two weeks before Election Day. It alleged that more than 21,000 voters registered in Pennsylvania were dead and asked that the court order the state to remove them from the rolls before the election.
The federal judge hearing the case declined to do so.
Instead, Judge John Jones III cited PILF’s questionable methodology in developing its purported list of ineligible voters, its decision to file the suit at the “eleventh hour,” and the fact that Pennsylvania’s system for stripping deceased voters from the rolls appears to work.
State law requires the health department to notify local election officials when someone over 18 dies, and those officials are required to cancel any corresponding voter registration. The secretary of the commonwealth, against whom the suit was brought, maintains a database where those voter records are updated.
In 2019, officials removed 95,670 deceased voters from the database, according to the secretary of the commonwealth’s annual report on voter registration. In 2018, they removed 91,424. In 2017, they removed 103,913.
Jones noted that more than half of the purportedly deceased voters on a list of 9,300 names PILF sent to the secretary of the commonwealth in May didn’t appear on the list the organization submitted in October.
“To be sure, this could be the result of a number of factors, including inadequacies in [PILF’s] data-mining procedures,” Jones wrote. “But it is also possible that this change was the result of state and county efforts to remove ineligible voters.”
Whatever the reason for it, the discrepancy led the court to “seriously question how many voters on [PILF’s] list are, in fact, deceased,” Jones wrote, and he wouldn’t have voters removed from the rolls based on PILF’s account alone.
“In an election where the margins may be razor-thin, we will not deprive the electorate of its voice without notice or proper investigation on the basis of an ill-framed and speculative venture launched at this late date,” Jones concluded.
That decision was issued on Oct. 20, but PILF filed an amended complaint on Nov. 5. That’s likely the reason for the interest in the lawsuit at this point.
In addition to its original claim, the organization alleged in the amended complaint that between the 2016 and 2018 elections, a total of at least 216 votes were cast “by (or at least in the name of)” people who had died before the election. PILF didn’t provide any evidence for the claim in the complaint, and the group didn’t respond to our request for more information.
It’s certainly possible that some votes have been cast in the name of deceased individuals. But, as we’ve written, in some cases, it is a matter of a relatively small number of people dying in the period between when they sent in a mail-in ballot and Election Day.
Sometimes there are rare cases of fraud, experts told us. “Yes, every once in a while, it turns out that someone votes in the name of someone who’s passed away,” Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School and a voter fraud expert, told us for another story we wrote on such claims. “A handful of votes in a sea of millions. It’s not OK, but it doesn’t swing results.”
Levitt and Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in elections, both said that claims about large numbers of votes from deceased people often turn out to be due to list-matching or administrative errors, such as confusing two people with identical or similar names.
So, there’s no evidence for claims like the one Gaetz made on Twitter, where he wrote, “The dead vote appears to have swung overwhelmingly for Joe Biden,” above a headline saying 21,000 “Dead People” are on the voter rolls in Pennsylvania. We don’t know whether the 21,000 people on PILF’s list were dead, whether they are still on the voter rolls or whether they voted or for whom.
It’s also worth noting that President-elect Joe Biden was leading Trump by more than 45,000 votes in the unofficial results for Pennsylvania on Nov. 10.
Update, April 9: Pennsylvania’s secretary of the commonwealth and PILF settled this lawsuit on April 1. Nothing in the settlement confirms the number of supposedly dead registered voters that PILF had claimed. But the secretary of the commonwealth did agree to compare Pennsylvania’s voter rolls to death data published by the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, before statewide elections in November. ERIC is an organization of 30 states and the District of Columbia that share voter registration data. Pennsylvania has been a member since 2015.
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Gaetz, Matt (@RepMattGaetz). “The dead vote appears to have swung overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.” Twitter. 6 Nov 2020.
Giuliani, Rudy (@RudyGiuliani). “AT LEAST 21K Dead People on Pennsylvania Voter Rolls.” Twitter. 6 Nov 2020.
Public Interest Legal Foundation v. Boockvar. 1:20-cv-01905. Complaint. U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. 15 Oct 2020.
Public Interest Legal Foundation v. Boockvar. 1:20-cv-01905. U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. 20 Oct 2020.
Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth. The Administration of Voter Registration in Pennsylvania — 2019 Report to the General Assembly. Jun 2020.
Public Interest Legal Foundation v. Boockvar. 1:20-cv-01905. Amended complaint. U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. 5 Nov 2020.
Farley, Robert. “Thin Allegations of ‘Dead People’ Voting.” FactCheck.org. 9 Nov 2020.