In the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 federal election, reports alleging widespread voter fraud gained prominence in the American media cycle.

Although theories relating to voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election may be unprecedented in scale, 2020 does not mark the first instance of public distrust in the electoral system. And though no evidence of decisive voter fraud was found in the 2020 election, there have been other elections where fraud and meddling did play a role.

Here’s what to know about prominent U.S. election controversies in recent history, and the misinformation associated with them:

2000 Presidential Election Florida Recount 

In 2000, U.S. voters saw one of the closest presidential elections in American history. The race between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore came to a head in Florida when an exceedingly close recount determined the fate of the presidency. With over 100 million votes cast, the election was virtually a tie and ultimately decided by several hundred Floridian votes.

Following the preliminary vote tally, Bush led in Florida by about 1,700 votes. This tight margin triggered an automatic machine recount in the state, which found the margin to be much smaller, as Bush led by only 327 votes. Citing Florida State law, Gore requested a manual recount in four key Democrat counties. The request was approved and a deadline by which the manual recount needed to be completed was assigned. This recount would prove highly controversial

Some of the greatest controversies resided with the physical ballots themselves. A number of the punch-paper ballots used in the election had not been completely pierced through – this is called a “hanging chad” ballot – thus making it difficult to discern voter intent. More problematic yet, other ballots were not pierced through at all and merely dimpled – this is called a “pregnant chad” ballot. Questions on how these votes should be counted exploded into nationwide controversy. 

On November 26, 2000, nearly 20 days after election day, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the election for Bush who won the state by a margin of 537 votes. As county recounts had not all been concluded yet, Gore sued Harris, and the Florida Supreme Court sided with him, ordering that all “hanging chad” ballots be manually recounted statewide. In response, the Bush campaign petitioned the majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court to halt the recount, which was approved in a landmark 7-2 decision.

After a machine recount, multiple hand recounts, and a judgment from the U.S. Supreme Court, the recount was brought to a halt, and George W. Bush officially won the presidency by 537 votes.

In 2001, a group of news outlets hired accounting firm BDO Seidman to conduct a months-long examination of the more than 60,000 undervotes cast in Florida – “hanging chad” and “pregnant chad” ballots that did not register a vote for a presidential candidate. This study found that, by most standards of scrutiny, Bush still would have won the presidency had all undervotes been recounted. 

However, a larger review conducted about a month after the BDO Seidman examination gave more mixed results. This review incorporated BDO Seidman’s findings on undervotes while also examining overvotes – ballots that were not counted because they included multiple votes for president. Here, the review found that Gore could have won Florida by up to 332 votes under the most lenient counting methods.

For some, the results sparked outrage. In a 2001 commentary, Brookings Institute (Center bias) political scientist Thomas E. Mann wrote, “evidence suggests that flawed ballot designs, confused voters, and antiquated voting equipment kept the plurality of citizens who intended to support Gore from having their verdict reflected in the official count.” 

A 2001 Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans felt Bush won the election “fair and square,” about one-third of Americans felt he only won on a “technicality,” and 17% said they believed Bush stole the election. The 2000 recount battle, for a significant number of Americans, undermined their confidence in the election.

In 2008, (Lean Left bias) determined that “nobody can say for sure who might have won” the 2000 presidential election. The election remains a contentious topic today, and marks the often controversial nature of the Electoral College. While Bush lost the popular vote by about 500,000 votes, he won by five electoral votes thanks to his win in Florida, securing him the presidency.

The 2000 election also shifted the public’s perception of the U.S. Supreme Court, which many now view as irreparably intertwined with everyday partisan politics. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted to halt the recount, later expressed regrets about her decision, saying, “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take [the case], goodbye.’” She also went on to say the case “gave the court a less-than-perfect reputation.”

Today, some draw comparisons between the actions of former President Donald Trump and Al Gore. In defense of Trump’s legal challenges against the 2020 presidential election results, attorney Alan Dershowitz referenced Gore’s 2000 election challenge, saying that Trump did “the same thing” by pursuing legal action. With this in mind, critics like Dershowitz believe it is unfair that Trump is facing multiple charges for illegal efforts to overturn the election.

Other sources, like the Cato Institute (Lean Right bias), argue that Gore's and Trump's legal challenges differ too greatly to make for a fair comparison. These sources argue that Trump failed to pursue the correct legal avenues for a recount – as Gore did – and did not concede as soon as the election results were finally certified – as Gore did.

2012 Alleged Vote Theft in Philadelphia

Following former President Barack Obama’s victory over Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, some Republicans alleged Obama was aided by voter fraud in several Philadelphia voting divisions. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (Lean Left bias), Mitt Romney received zero votes in 59 inner-city Philadelphia voting divisions, as Obama won 100% of the votes in these divisions. Obama would go on to win Pennsylvania with 52% of the vote

Philadelphia election commissioner Al Schmidt – who is a Republican – investigated the 2012 voting irregularities and found no evidence of vote theft. According to Schmidt, he “couldn't find anyone who voted for [Romney]” in these divisions. Similarly, reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for Republicans in these divisions and could not find any.

Schmidt also explained that votes cannot be subtracted from Philadelphia voting machines, meaning removing Republican votes in these divisions was impossible, making vote theft even more unlikely. 

Additionally, It is important to note that these inner-city voting divisions were very small. According to PolitiFact (Lean Left bias), the votes counted at these 59 voting divisions accounted for only about 3.5 percent of Philadelphia's vote in aggregate – for context, Philadelphia has nearly 1,700 voting divisions. One of the specified divisions had a turnout of only 139 voters, while the average turnout for Philadelphia divisions was about 616 votes. Further, some of the 59 divisions had as few as 10 registered Republicans living in them, with an average of 17 registered Republicans living in each of these divisions.

Four years after the 2012 election, theories about vote theft in Pennsylvania entered the national conversation when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump raised alarms that the 2016 presidential election could potentially be rigged

Approaching the 2016 election, some critics on the right saw Philadelphia's 2012 voting irregularities as evidence of a rigged or vulnerable system that was actively stealing votes from Republican candidates. Those questioning the security of Philadelphia's electoral system included Fox News (Right bias) anchor Sean Hannity, who referenced the 59 divisions in a series of Tweets in August 2016. Additionally, one internet meme claimed that Romney's failure to receive a single vote in these divisions was a “mathematical and statistical impossibility.”

Ultimately, no evidence suggests voter theft occurred in Philadelphia during the 2012 presidential election. 

2016 Russian Election Interference 

Following Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, concerns about Russian interference in U.S. elections quickly took hold of the American media cycle. Federal investigators drew concerns that Russian trolls and hackers – directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin – had taken to the internet to sway the election in Donald Trump’s favor.

In perhaps the most high-profile incident of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russian intelligence hacked into the email of Hillary Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta, leaking over 20,000 pages of private correspondence between Clinton staffers. The emails touched on a variety of subjects, including details surrounding the Clinton family’s non-profit “the Clinton Global Initiative,” Clinton’s connections to Wall Street, and complaints from staffers, including one comment from Podesta saying Clinton had “terrible instincts.” 

The emails were released only one month before election day, sprouting concerns that the leak could have influenced some Americans to vote for Trump. The Clinton campaign said the leak was a "Russian attempt to influence [the] election" and refused to authenticate any of the emails.

In 2018, a DOJ grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for numerous “hacking offenses related to the 2016 election,” which included the theft of Podesta’s emails. 

Many also raised concerns about Russian trolls utilizing social media – namely Twitter and Facebook – to distribute propaganda in order to influence Americans to vote for Donald Trump. These posts largely focused on highly divisive topics, like the Black Lives Matter movement and religion. Richard Burr, former Republican chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, noted that findings on Russian social media meddling demonstrated “how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion, and ideology.” 

In November 2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin – then-Putin ally and boss of Wagner Group – admitted that Russia had interfered in U.S. elections, stating, "We interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere.” Prigozhin is the only senior Russian political player to admit to meddling in U.S. elections. 

Still, despite broad concerns from the left, as well as federal investigations confirming Russian meddling, recent studies suggest that Russian interference had no meaningful impact on voter attitudes.

A 2023 study conducted by the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University found that the vast majority of Russian disinformation impacted a “small subset of users, most of whom were highly partisan Republicans.” This means that most social media users affected by Russian disinformation were likely already planning on voting for Trump. The study also determined that only “1 percent of Twitter users accounted for 70 percent of the exposure to accounts that Twitter identified as Russian troll accounts,” meaning the reach of Russian troll accounts was much narrower than initially thought. 

Centrally, the study concludes “that there was no relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior.”

This NYU study has been covered by numerous Left-leaning publications that previously emphasized Russia’s role in Trump’s 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, including the Washington Post (Lean Left bias)

Still, NYU researchers warn that, while Russian interference did not meaningfully sway voter attitudes in the 2016 election, it may have harmed many Americans' “faith in American electoral integrity.”

2018 Georgia Gubernatorial Election

Following her defeat in the 2018 Georgia Gubernatorial election, Stacey Abrams – the Democrat candidate – refused to concede to Republican opponent Brian Kemp, believing the election was unfair. Abrams blamed her loss on “years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and incompetence.” In her final speech, Abrams said, “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”

Before his 2018 gubernatorial victory, Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state – meaning it was his job to oversee Georgia's elections. In July 2017, Kemp’s office removed hundreds of thousands of Georgian voters from the voter rolls, making them ineligible to vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Kemp’s office removed these voters for inactivity, meaning they had not voted in multiple past elections. 

Many of these voters were removed with the assumption that they had moved states, but one analysis commissioned by Greg Palast, director of the Palast Investigative Fund, found that “340,134 voters were removed from the rolls on the grounds that they had moved – but they actually still live at the address where they are registered.” Additionally, other lawsuits accused Kemp of blocking the registration of 50,000 potential voters, “80% of them black, Latino or Asian,” because of “minor discrepancies in the spelling or spacing of their name.” 

Many critics argued it was unethical for Kemp to oversee the 2018 election, believing it was a conflict of interest for him to oversee an election he was a candidate in. Groups like the Georgia NAACP and the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice called on Kemp to resign from his position as secretary of state, but he refused. 

While Abrams emphasized that she had no desire to contest the election results, saying “I do not want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post,” she did announce her plans to file “a major federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia for the gross mismanagement of this election and to protect future elections from unconstitutional actions.”

In this lawsuit, Abrams and her organization Fair Fight Action accused the Georgia State Election Board of overseeing a state election that violated the “First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.” They claimed that these officials “engaged in gross mismanagement, and failed to fulfill their statutory duty to ensure uniform application of election laws across Georgia’s 159 counties,” creating “election systems and procedures that have unconstitutionally burdened the fundamental right to vote and has particularly burdened the rights of people of color.” 

Abram’s suit was ultimately defeated, with federal courts ruling in favor of Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s current secretary of state. The courts found that, while “Georgia’s election system is not perfect, the challenged practices violate neither the constitution nor the Voting Rights Act.” Raffensperger hailed the victory, declaring the ruling as “a win for all Georgia election officials,” going on to say, “Stolen election and voter suppression claims by Stacey Abrams were nothing but poll-tested rhetoric not supported by facts and evidence.”

Some critics equate Abrams's refusal to concede to the actions of former President Donald Trump following the 2020 election. Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia, said “Democrats attack Trump and Republicans for believing these conspiracies [about voter fraud], believing what they call the ‘Big Lie.’ But the original Big Lie proponent was Stacey Abrams.”

On their website, the Republican National Convention has a tally outlining “35 times Stacey Abrams denied the results of her 2018 race.” The tally includes quotes ranging from 2018 to 2021, like “The election was stolen from Georgia voters,” and “The results were purely and fully attributable to voter suppression.” 

As of March 2024, Donald Trump is facing several indictments related to alleged illegal efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election in the state of Georgia. Critics on the right say the difference in Democrats’ response to Abrams compared to Trump is hypocritical. In one article written for the National Review (Right bias), Raffensperger writes, “When it comes to Stacey Abrams’s three-year-long stolen-election campaign, Biden and his Democratic allies in politics and the media have been shown to be hypocrites time and time again.” 

Regardless, Abrams rejects comparisons between her and Trump’s actions, explaining, “Not a single lawsuit filed would have reversed or changed the outcome of the election. My point was that the access to the election was flawed, and I refuse to concede a system that permits citizens to be denied access. That is very different than someone claiming a fraudulent outcome.”

It is important to note that Trump’s actions outlined in the Georgia indictment are substantively different from the actions of Abrams. While Abram’s critics place focus on her refusal to concede and accuse her of perpetuating a narrative alleging the 2018 gubernatorial election was unfair – which is not illegal – Trump faces felony charges, including racketeering and conspiracy to file false documents, among several other charges.

2018 North Carolina 9th District Congressional Election

In 2018, a North Carolina congressional election between Republican candidate Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready was redone due to illegal ballot harvesting. 

Harris was leading in the vote count by a margin of 905 votes when North Carolina’s State Board of Elections unanimously ordered a new election in the state’s 9th Congressional District. The order came after the board found irregularities with mail-in ballots. Harris accepted that the “public’s confidence had been undermined to such an extent that a new election was warranted.” 

At the center of this investigation was Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative heading Harris’ "get-out-the-vote operations” in Bladen and Robeson counties. Prosecutors accused Dowless of “collecting absentee ballots from voters in Bladen County and, in some cases, fraudulently signing them or filling in votes for races that voters had left blank.” This prompted concerns that the election tally was skewed by Dowless’ efforts. 

At least two individuals also claimed that Dowless had paid them to collect absentee ballots, with one of the individuals alleging that she was paid “$100 by McCrae Dowless to pick up the ballots.” 

This is an example of illegal ballot harvesting – the process of collecting and submitting other voter’s absentee ballots, and in some cases, forging their selections. Most states have laws permitting ballot harvesting under varied circumstances. In North Carolina, ballot harvesting is illegal in most instances unless the individual returning the vote is a “near relative or legal guardian” of the voter. Illegal ballot harvesting is a class one felony in North Carolina. 

With concerns that the 9th district's primary election may have also been tainted by election fraud – as Harris defeated Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger by only 828 votes – the Board of Elections also ordered the re-do of the Republican primary. In the wake of the scandal, Harris chose to withdraw from the new primary election, which was won instead by Republican State Senator Dan Bishop. Bishop would go on to win the seat. 

Dowless was sentenced to six months in prison for separate charges of “theft of government property and Social Security fraud” but died from lung cancer before his larger election fraud trial, which included charges of obstruction of justice, possessing absentee ballots, and perjury. 

Dowless’ interference in the 2018 North Carolina 9th District election is an example of election fraud in U.S. federal elections, and an extremely rare instance in which election fraud led to a full redo of both a primary and general election.

2018 California 39th District Congressional Election 

In 2018, Republican congressional candidate Young Kim faced off against Democrat Gil Cisneros for the 39th Congressional District in Orange County. The day after the election, Kim held a commanding 14-point lead on Cisneros in what looked like one of California Republicans' few victories in a congressional election otherwise dominated by Democrats.

However, two weeks after election day, an additional 11,000 mail-in votes were tallied, and Cisneros was declared the winner with 51.6% of the vote

Some Republicans attribute Kim’s defeat to California’s lax mail-in voting and ballot harvesting laws. Before 2013, California law required that voters be disabled or ill for someone to legally return a ballot on their behalf, and that person had to be a family member or member of the same household. In 2013, the law was changed, removing the requirement that voters must be disabled or ill for a ballot to legally be returned on their behalf.

In 2016, the State Assembly passed Democrat-led Bill 1921, which permits anyone to return someone else’s ballot, regardless of their familial ties or where they live, and there is no limit on how many ballots a person can return. However, it is still illegal for a person to accept compensation for returning a ballot, and “they must provide their name, their relationship to the voter, and their signature on the envelope for the voter whose ballot they’re returning.” California’s ballot return laws are among the most lenient in the country. 

Some critics worried that Assembly Bill 1921 paved the way for heavy-handed intervention in California elections, specifically from Democrat operatives. In one instance in 2017, a Los Angeles resident reported what he believed was “voter intimidation” when a canvasser representing State Assembly candidate Wendy Carrillo came to his door offering to return his ballot on his behalf, and allegedly pressured him to commit to voting for Carrillo on the spot.

Critics also worry that ballots collected by political operatives could be tampered with or discarded to ensure the operative’s preferred candidate is selected. Some Republicans worry it is coercive and illegal tactics like these that may have cost Kim the 39th District. There is no hard evidence of this.

Following her loss, Kim’s campaign was quick to accuse Cisneros's campaign of wrongdoing, accusing Cisneros’ operatives of illegal “physical ballot tampering” and "harassing and intimidating vote counters in Orange County." However, the county Registrar’s Office denied there had been any form of ballot tampering, and emphasized there were no instances of intimidation toward vote counters.

Those on the left reject allegations of a large-scale scheme exploiting ballot harvesting laws. Democrats point out that early voters are more likely to be conservative, whereas mail-in voters are more likely to be liberal-minded. Many Democrats see mail-in voting and legal ballot harvesting as a means to improve election access. Following the 2018 congressional election, California’s then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla said, “Every eligible citizen should be able to easily ... cast their ballot and have their vote counted,” explaining “That’s what’s driven the policies that are in place.”

Because votes are counted in the order they are received, these Republican votes are counted first and mail-in ballots, which can arrive as many as three days after election day, are counted later. This was the trend across the state, including elections without notable Republican contenders. 

Additionally, one study from researchers at Stanford University found that universal vote-by-mail laws have “no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate” – though this does not necessarily account for ballot harvesting. 

In 2020, Young and Cisneros faced off a second time, this time with Young winning the 39th District seat. The Washington Times (Lean Right bias) attributes this win in part to ballot harvesting, which it said California Republicans “embraced” in the 2020 election. 

Quinn Poseley is a news intern at AllSides. He has a Left bias.

Reviewed and edited by Joseph Ratliff, AllSides Content Designer and News Editor (Lean Left bias), Andy Gorel, News Editor and Bias Analyst (Center bias), Malayna J. Bizier, AllSides News Assistant (Right bias), John Gable, AllSides CEO (Lean Right bias), and Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias).