An illegal ballot cast on behalf of a deceased voter is rare, and we could find no examples of it occurring in Michigan in 2020 or 2016. Yet, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan falsely claims in a TV ad that “dead people always vote Democrat,” and misleadingly suggests it is a widespread problem in his state.
Many Republican candidates in the 2022 election cycle have falsely claimed that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, despite no evidence of any widespread fraud. When he entered the race for governor in Michigan, Kevin Rinke said “there is no information that says that the election was stolen” from Trump, although he said “there are significant irregularities that have been exposed in the past election in Michigan.”
Rinke, former owner of the Rinke Automotive Group, is one of five Republicans who qualified to run in the Aug. 2 primary for the right to face incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, the leading Republican in the race, and two others were disqualified from running for submitting ballot petitions with numerous forged signatures, throwing the race wide open.
In a TV ad that started to air June 2, Rinke attacks Whitmer for not doing “a thing to fix voter fraud.” The ad opens with a zombie wearing “I voted” stickers on his torn and disheveled suit jacket, while Rinke says: “Why is it that dead people always vote Democrat?”
That’s false, of course. Neither party has a lock on “dead” voters.
In fact, most of the cases of such voter fraud in 2020 were carried out by Republicans, according to our review of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s voter fraud database and online searches.
We could not find any cases of illegal voting in 2020 or 2016 on behalf of deceased people in Michigan, and the state attorney general’s office said it wasn’t aware of any.
“The Department of Attorney General has not charged any cases related to voting on behalf of a deceased person in the 2020 or 2016 elections,” Lynsey Mukomel, a spokeswoman for the department, told us in an email. Mukomel added that she wasn’t aware of local prosecutors bringing such cases of voter fraud, either.
That doesn’t mean there were not cases of election fraud in Michigan. For example, Mukomel said the attorney general’s office has brought election-related charges against a nursing home employee for forging signatures on absentee ballot applications submitted in the names of three nursing home residents.
Few Cases of ‘Dead’ Voters in 2020 Election
Using a database maintained by the Heritage Foundation, we found only six cases of people convicted for casting ballots or attempting to cast ballots in the name of “deceased” or “dead” voters in the 2020 general election. Five of them were Republicans. We could not determine the party affiliation of one voter.
Here are those cases:
Tracey Kay McKee, of Arizona, pleaded guilty to one count of illegal voting and was sentenced in April to two years of probation. McKee, a registered Republican, cast a ballot in the name of her deceased mother, Mary Arendt, who was also a Republican.
Donald “Kirk” Hartle, of Nevada, pleaded guilty in November of voting twice in the same election and was sentenced to one year of probation. Hartle, a registered Republican, told local media that someone had stolen his deceased wife’s ballot and cast an illegal vote for her, when in fact he had cast a ballot in her name. “Though rare, voter fraud can undercut trust in our election system,” Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford said in announcing the plea agreement. “This particular case of voter fraud was particularly egregious because the offender continually spread inaccurate information about our elections despite being the source of fraud himself.”
Edward Snodgrass, of Ohio, a registered Republican who at the time was a Porter Township trustee, was sentenced a year ago to three days in jail for voting twice, including returning an absentee ballot on behalf of his deceased father.
Robert Richard Lynn, of Pennsylvania, was sentenced to six months probation for using his deceased mother’s credentials in an attempt to obtain an absentee ballot in her name. Lynn is a registered Republican.
Bruce Bartman, of Pennsylvania, admitted he illegally voted for Trump after applying for and receiving an absentee ballot on behalf of his long-deceased mother. Bartman, a registered Republican, also tried but was unable to obtain an absentee ballot in the name of his mother-in-law, who died in 2019. He was sentenced last April to five years of probation.
Krista Michelle Connor, of Arizona, was sentenced on June 6 to three years of supervised probation for illegal voting. Connor was not eligible to vote, but she signed and cast an early ballot on behalf of her mother, Caroline Jeanne Sullivan, who died approximately one month before Connor signed the ballot envelope. We do not know her party affiliation.
Using Google, we found a few additional cases that were not listed in the Heritage Foundation database.
The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office in Washington state successfully pressed charges against three people for casting ballots in the name of deceased relatives. All were sentenced to community service. We could not find their party affiliations.
There were also charges brought in January 2021 against Francis Fiore Presto, a registered Republican in Pennsylvania, who was charged with casting an absentee ballot in the name of his deceased wife, Judy, according to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
In Colorado, Barry Lee Morphew was charged with casting a ballot in the name of his wife, Suzanne, in October 2020. His wife had been missing since May 2020. The state indicted Morphew in May 2021 for his wife’s murder, but that case was dismissed without prejudice in April. According to USA Today, Morphew told investigators that he cast his wife’s ballot for Trump “because I wanted Trump to win. I just thought, give him another vote.”
In Illinois, a Republican election judge in the city of Alton admitted that she cast her deceased husband’s ballot for Trump on Sept. 30, 2020. “We got them a couple of days after he died, and I knew how he wanted to vote,” she told investigators, according to The Telegraph.
In Florida, a “self-described Democrat who supports President Donald Trump” was charged in October 2020 with filing a false ballot application using his deceased wife’s name, according to WFLA, an NBC affiliate in Tampa Bay. Larry Wiggins claimed he didn’t intend to cast a ballot, but rather just wanted to test to see if the system worked. It did.
A Closer Look at Michigan Mail-In Ballots
Rinke says, as governor, he would conduct an audit to make sure the voter rolls include only those who are “registered, identified and alive.” There are, however, systems in place in Michigan and other states to keep voter registration lists current and to prevent ballots from being cast in the name of voters who have died or moved.
First, there is a federal law — the National Voter Registration Act — that requires election officials in every state to “maintain accurate and current voter registration lists,” as the Department of Justice says on its website.
The Michigan Department of State explains on its website how it complies with the law: “Each week, the Michigan Department of State uses information from the Social Security Death Index to cancel the records of individuals in the Qualified Voter File who have died. County clerks also share death data from county records with local clerks. Additionally, city and township clerks also cancel voter registrations when they independently confirm the death of a voter registered in their jurisdiction, for example through an obituary.”
In the 2020 general election, 3,469 absentee ballots were rejected because they were cast by voters who were alive but who “died before Election Day,” according to the department.
Second, the department said that Michigan is “a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a consortium of dozens of states that share voter information to ensure registrations are cancelled when voters relocate within states.”
The state rejected 4,090 absentee ballots in the 2020 general election because the voters moved to another jurisdiction, department data show.
Third, Michigan is one of 27 states that have a signature verification process in place for mail-in ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“In Michigan, absentee ballots are not counted until a voter has twice provided signatures matching the one on file with their local election clerk – first on their application and then on their absentee ballot envelope,” the Michigan Department of State says on its website. “Hundreds of ballots were rejected because they lacked a matching signature.”
Actually, the number of rejected ballots reached into the thousands in the 2020 general election. In addition to the absentee ballots rejected because a person had moved or died before Election Day, the department said 1,852 were rejected for having no signature and 1,400 were rejected because the signature on the ballot envelope didn’t match the one on file.
In all, 15,302 absentee ballots were rejected in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.
This isn’t to say that the system is perfect.
The Michigan Office of the Auditor General conducted a performance audit of the state Bureau of Election’s effort to maintain the integrity of the statewide Qualified Voter File, or QVF. In its March report, the auditor’s office said it found “2,775 (0.02%) of the 11,725,897 votes cast in eight elections from May 2019 through November 2020 were cast by electors deceased as of election day according to QVF voter history. Of these 2,775 votes, 2,734 (98.5%) were cast by electors who died within 40 days prior to the election.”
The auditor’s report concluded that the high percentage of ballots (98.5%) cast by voters who later died within 40 days prior to the election is “because of the delays among the dates of a person’s death, death certification, and formal removal from QVF.” Those delays make it “less likely” that an election worker can identify and reject such ballots, it said.
So, yes, some ballots cast by registered voters who later died before the election do escape the state’s verification process. But, as the report shows, more than twice as many ballots were rejected (5,838) than accepted (2,775) during the eight elections that were reviewed by the auditor’s office.
All this points to the inescapable conclusion that Rinke is wrong to claim that “dead people always vote Democrat.” He also is misleading Michigan voters when he suggests that ballots cast illegally on behalf of decreased voters is a widespread problem, or that his state isn’t doing “a thing to fix voter fraud.”
Undergraduate fellow Sean Christensen contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.