- Jack Goodman, Christopher Giles, Olga Robinson y Jake Horton
- BBC Reality Check
November 18, 2020
Donald Trump supporters have claimed that thousands of votes were cast in the US elections using the names of people who had died.
“She may be 72 years old,” Maria Arredondo of Michigan told us when we called her. “But I’m alive and well. My mind works fine and I’m healthy.”
Arredondo said he had voted for Joe Biden and he was surprised to hear that his name had appeared on a list of supposedly dead voters in the state of Michigan.
We also talked to other people in situations similar to Maria’s and found similar stories.
In previous elections it has been the case that apparently deceased persons had voted.
This could happen for a variety of reasons, such as clerical errors or perhaps because other family members with similar names used their ballots, but Trump supporters have denounced that this it happened on a large scale in 2020 elections.
In the BBC Reality Check team we set out to find out if there is evidence to make that claim.
10,000 ‘dead absentee voters’ in Michigan?
The story begins with a list of around 10,000 names posted on Twitter by an activist supporting Trump.
He says they are from people who have died, but who have also voted in the Michigan presidential election.
Statements like this have been repeated many times on different social networks, even made by Republican legislators.
The 10,000-person list contains the name, zip code and date the ballot was received.
Then list a date of birth and a date of death. Some of those people supposedly died more than 50 years ago.
Michigan has a database that allows you to enter a person’s name, zip code, month and year of birth, and see if they voted by mail or remotely this year. That way, you can easily check whether or not the people on the list voted.
There are also several websites in the United States that include databases of death records.
But there is a fundamental problem with this list of 10,000 names.
Doing an exercise like that,you can find several false coincidences: Someone born in January 1940 voted in Michigan in the elections and there was someone born elsewhere in the US in January 1940 with the same name who is now dead.
This happens a lot in a country as large as the United States (with 328 million people), and particularly with common names.
To check the list, we choose 30 random names. Also, we add the oldest person from the list.
From this list of 31 names, we were able to speak directly to 11 people (or a family member, neighbor, or social worker) to confirm if they were still alive.
For the other 17, there was no public record of their death, and we found clear evidence that they were alive after the supposed date of death in the list of 10,000. A clear pattern emerged: the bad records had been joined to create a false match.
Finally, we saw that three people on the list were dead. We will examine these cases later.
What we discovered
The first thing we did was check the official Michigan electoral database to see if our 31 people had submitted their ballots. They all had.
We then looked at the death records and quickly became suspicious when we saw that the vast majority did not die in Michiganbut in other parts of the United States.
We wondered if we could find people with the same name currently living in Michigan.
By checking Michigan state public records, cross-referencing voters’ zip codes, we were able to find precise dates of birth for those who had voted and, as we had anticipated, did not match dates of birth on death records.
So we could be sure that we were dealing with two groups of people: those who had voted and those who had the same name and age who had died elsewhere.
But what we really wanted to do was talk to the voters themselves.
I am alive!
We called Roberto Garcia, a retired teacher in Michigan. He told us, “Of course I’m alive and of course I voted for Biden. TI would have been dead to vote for Trump“.
We also found a 100-year-old woman who, according to the “dead voters” list, had died in 1982. She was alive and currently resides in a nursing home in Michigan.
But our search results weren’t always so straightforward.
When we looked for another centennial, who according to the list had died in 1977, we found that she was still alive when her postal ballot was returned in September. However, a neighbor told us that the woman had died only a few weeks ago. We also found a matching obituary from October that confirmed it.
If a voter dies before Election Day after submitting their ballot, Michigan authorities say the ballot will be rejected.
We have not been able to establish if your vote was counted.
In the case of those we were unable to contact by phone, we wanted to use other means to confirm they were alive.
These included public records of, for example, business activities, state and local authorities.
A woman who was supposed to have died in 2006 had an annual statement from a company signed in her name as of January 2020.
Two other men on our list of 31 people died some time ago. However, votes had been cast in their names, with the correct zip codes and years of birth, according to the voting database.
We found that in the case of both men, there was children with the same name currently registered at the same address as their deceased parents.
In both cases, a ballot was sent for the deceased parents.
Local election officials told us that one of the votes had been counted, but there was no record that the son had voted.
In the other, it was the son who actually voted, but had registered as the father due to a clerical error.
“A matter of statistics”
Our selection of 31 cases is just a small sample of the 10,000 names on the list, but it clearly revealed the flaws in the database shared by Trump supporters.
From our research, it is clear that in almost all of our 31 verification cases, authentic voter data in Michigan was combined with records of deceased persons with the same name and month and year of birth from individuals not just from the state of Michigan , but all over the United States to produce false coincidences.
“If the lists are linked only to name and date of birth, in a state the size of Michigan, you are guaranteed to get false positives,” says Professor Justin Levitt, an expert on democratic law.
Known as “the problem dthe birthday”: the high probability that two students from the same class share the same birthday.
So if you compare millions of voters in Michigan to a database of deaths from across the United States, you’re sure to find matches, particularly if the voter database it does not include the day of the month a person was born.
“It is simply a matter of statistics that if millions of records are crossed with millions of other records, you will get a considerable amount of false positive matches. We have seen this before“says the Levitt.
With her vote cast safely and counted, María Arredondo told us that she is waiting for the arrival of the new government.
“[Biden] he was a great vice president under Obama. I’m very happy. It has taken a weight off my shoulders. “
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