Several of President Donald Trump’s supporters have claimed or suggested — without providing evidence — that a substantial number of votes were fraudulently cast by “dead people” in Pennsylvania.
Election experts say that while this occasionally happens, most often with votes cast by a spouse, it is exceedingly rare, and would not likely affect the outcome even in a relatively close race, such as the one in Pennsylvania.
In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News on Nov. 8, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said the Trump campaign had “evidence of dead people voting in Pennsylvania,” where President-elect Joe Biden led Trump by more than 45,000 votes, according to Associated Press tallies as of the afternoon on Nov. 9. Based on the votes remaining, AP and others called the state for Biden on Nov. 7, despite Biden leading by less than 1 percentage point.
“So, what happened?” said Graham, who has urged the president to keep fighting the election results in court. “The Trump team has canvassed all early voters and absentee mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. And they have found over 100 people they think were dead, but 15 people that we verified that have been dead who voted. But here is the one that gets me. Six people registered after they died and voted. In Pennsylvania, I guess you’re never out of it.”
Later in the interview Graham said, “I do know that we have evidence of six people in Pennsylvania registering after they died and voting after they died. And we haven’t looked at the entire system.”
On the same program, former New York City Mayor and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani called Philadelphia “an epicenter of voter fraud” and said “we’re going to be looking at dead persons’ ballots, which may actually be very, very substantial.”
Claims of dead people voting are often overblown after elections. 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. More commonly, claims about large numbers of votes from deceased people turn out to be due to list-matching or clerical problems, such as confusing two people with identical or similar names, Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in elections, told us via email.
We reached out to the Trump campaign and Graham’s Senate office for details about the Trump campaign research that concluded some number of ballots were cast by people who have died, but we did not get a response.
In a press conference on Nov. 7, Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski provided what he said was “one concrete example.”
Lewandowski pointed to an obituary for Denise Ondick of West Homestead in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, who died on Oct. 22. According to online records from the Pennsylvania Department of State, election officials received her application for a mail-in ballot on Oct. 23, and sent her a ballot the following day. Those records also show that her ballot was then received back by the county on Nov. 2, and that her vote was recorded.
The Philadelphia Inquirer got ahold of Ondick’s daughter, who said she helped her mother fill out an application for a mail-in ballot in early October, before she died of cancer. The daughter told the Inquirer she could not explain why the ballot had been sent in after her mother’s death, and that her father, Ondick’s husband, could not recall if he did anything with the ballot. The daughter said her mother had planned to vote for Trump.
Allegheny County officials said they will investigate the matter.
Lewandowski said that example was “one of many” the Trump campaign would be asking the courts to review. But neither he nor any other Trump campaign official has publicly provided any other details or cases.
Elections experts say cases of people voting fraudulently for people who have died does occasionally happen.
“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 via email. “A handful of votes in a sea of millions. It’s not OK, but it doesn’t swing results.”
Levitt said it was hard to evaluate Graham’s claim that the Trump campaign “found over 100 people they think were dead, but 15 people that we verified that have been dead who voted” without knowing more details about the methodology.
Levitt said he sees claims about widespread cases of dead people voting every election season, but upon closer inspection, “Far more frequently, the claims collapse. Over and over and over and over. … [F]rom past experience, I’d bet that administrative error and list-matching problems explain the vast majority of whatever’s here.”
Richard Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine and a nationally recognized election law expert, agreed.
“I have not yet seen any evidence showing dead people voting in Pennsylvania, a very common allegation that seldom pans out,” Hasen told us via email. “But even if a few cases were found, it would not invalidate the election. One would have to show, at minimum, more illegal votes than the margin between the candidates. That would be quite an extreme scale of fraud. Let’s see what the evidence is.”
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