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It started with a dead cat named Cody.

The cat died 12 years ago, so his owners were shocked when, randomly, they received a voter-registration application form for Cody Tims in the mail, as they told Fox 5 Atlanta in a newscast earlier this month.

"How'd this happen?" asked Carol Tims, holding up the form and a tin of the cat's ashes. "I mean, it's not reality. He's a cat. Here he is."

To Carol and her husband, Ron, it was an amusing, albeit head-scratching mistake, which a spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state's office said was likely the result of a third-party mailing list error not involving the state. To the GOP, however, the error was a harbinger of voter fraud and cause for fear that the beloved Scouts and Jaspers across the country may be voting in the 2020 election, dead or alive -- possibly including famous dogs such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren's pup, Bailey.

Even President Donald Trump and his campaign have elevated such pet-related voting concerns.

"This is the election chaos and mischief the Democrats want!" the Trump campaign tweeted, linking to the story about Cody.

Days later, Trump told Townhall, a conservative news outlet, that Democratic governors could be sending millions of mail-in ballots to unknown people or dogs. "Who are they sending them to? Nobody has any idea. They're sending them to dogs. They actually have sent to dogs," he said.

Suddenly, jokes about registering your puppy to vote started to sound sinister to some in the GOP, as Warren found out earlier this month.

"Bailey is definitely going to vote in November, and he's voting Democrat, all the way," Warren said to Symone Sanders, a senior campaign adviser for Joe Biden, in a town hall, petting the pup. "Bailey for Biden!"

Sanders chuckled. Steve Guest, rapid response director for the GOP, did not.

"Elizabeth Warren endorses voter fraud, saying her dog will be voting Democrat," he wrote on Twitter, linking to the clip and the news about Cody. "Voter fraud is not a joking matter. I hope Elizabeth Warren is joking ... because dead cats getting voter registration in the mail is a real thing ..."

But is electoral pet fraud a real problem?

Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which has studied the prevalence voter fraud, says no. Of all the country's problems at the moment, she said, "we do not have to worry about this."

Kamarck said that pet-related voter fraud fears are another example of the ways Republicans are trying to suppress efforts to expand mail-in voting ahead of November, even though mail-in voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Kamarck pointed to a recent Brookings Institution analysis of Colorado as an example: Accessing the Heritage Foundation's voter fraud database, Kamarck and colleagues identified just eight cases of mail-in-related voter fraud out of more than nearly 16 million votes in a 13-year period.

To mock Guest's concerns, thousands started tweeting #Dogs4Biden, promoted by the Lincoln Project, the Republican anti-Trump PAC. Late-night host Stephen Colbert made a spoof sad-dog infomercial to the tune of singer and pet advocate Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," seeking donations for dogs tempted to vote illegally.

"Hi I'm Sarah McLachlan -- will you be an angel for a helpless animal?" it began. "Every day, dogs are being tempted to vote illegally because ballots are shoved into their mail slots. Right now, there's an animal that needs you, so call the number on this screen."

Still, there have been plenty of examples of dead pets being accidentally mailed voter registration forms by third-party groups dedicated to registering people to vote, which access commercial mailing lists. It happened to a dead dog named Mozart in Virginia in 2012, again igniting unfounded fears of widespread voter fraud in the state, and the same thing happened to a dead cat named PiWacket in California in 2016.

As to how the pets ended up on commercial mailing lists? Page Gardner, the president of the Voter Participation Center, one such third-party group that has accidentally mailed dead pets registration forms in the past, told The Washington Post in 2012 that the reason was likely because the pet owners had signed up for subscriptions in their pets' names.

Gardner said none of this is indicative of voter fraud, and that it's not a crime unless people actually try to register their pets by mailing in the form to elections officials. People have tried that, too, and have ended up getting charged with voter fraud.

"The amazing thing about this to me when we dug into this data is that not only were the cases few and far between, they were all trivial, and they got found out," Kamarck said of the voter fraud in general within the Heritage Foundation's voter fraud database. "I mean, the dogs got found!"

Most cases of people trying to register their dogs to vote were politically motivated stunts designed to prove that voter fraud can happen. Although, sometimes the pet owners just confessed themselves.

In an April report from the Heritage Foundation about why Trump was justified in worrying about voter fraud, the group pointed to the case of Richard Davis, a California man who "was convicted of a felony in California after registering his four dogs to vote as Democrats over a four-year period."

Davis had notified the Monterey County district attorney's office what he was doing all along. "We appreciate his political activism on this and told him not to do it again," prosecutor Berkley Brannon told the Californian last year. "He went ahead and did it again."

In 2012, the husband of a campaign worker for former Republican New Mexico state senator Heather Wilson tried to pull a similar political stunt with his dog Buddy, mailing in a registration form with a fake Social Security number and then immediately telling the media. Officials, in turn, began investigating him for fraud, and "my wife was furious with me," the remorseful husband, Tom Tolbert, told KOAT.

Jane Balogh, who used a phone bill in her dog Duncan's name to register him as an independent, caused one of the biggest pet-fraud stirs, in King County, Wash., in 2007, almost going on trial. She, too, had informed an elections official of her plot to expose what she said were lax voter-identification requirements by registering Duncan. The charges, for making a false statement to a public official on Duncan's form, were later dropped after she performed community service.

As for Cody, his owners said that they will not be attempting to register him. But if they could, they said Cody would be a "Democat."

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