Invitation to Fraud How Neglecting Election Integrity Threatens American Democracy
COME NOVEMBER 2012, the United States may be on the brink of repeating its 2000 Florida election debacle—but this time in several states—with allegations of voter fraud, intimidation, and manipulation of voting machines added to the generalized chaos that sent the Bush–Gore race into overtime.
There is still time to reduce the chance of another electoral meltdown, both this year and in future years. But fixing the problem will not happen unless we acknowledge that the United States has a haphazard, fraud-prone election system more befitting an emerging Third World country than the world’s leading democracy.
With its hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and Supreme Court intervention, the Florida fiasco compelled this country to confront an ugly reality: that the United States has been making do with what noted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has called “the modern world’s sloppiest electoral systems.”
Just how sloppy was demonstrated in February 2012, when the Pew Center on the States found 1.8 million names of deceased persons still registered to vote on state rolls. Roughly 2.75 million people are registered to vote in more than one state. The study found altogether that 24 million voter registrations—13 percent of the nation’s total—contained major inaccuracies or were otherwise invalid. That’s a lot of room for confusion or mischief.
With the demise of most big-city political machines and the rise of election supervision by nonpartisan civil service employees, concerns about honest and accurate election counts receded. But Dr. Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, who co-wrote a pioneering book on the subject, Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, warned as early as the 1990s that “voter fraud is making a comeback.” As he testified before Congress after the Florida debacle:
When we look at the registration system and voting process, we have to balance two conflicting values; one, the goal of full and informed participation of the electorate, and two, the integrity of the system. To the extent that we keep expanding the participation rate and make it easier and easier for people to register and vote, we almost certainly increase the chances for voter fraud. So, in a sense it is a tradeoff. To move completely in the direction of one value as opposed to the other is foolhardy.
The 2000 recount was more than merely a national embarrassment; it left a lasting scar on the American electoral psyche. A Zogby poll a few years ago found that 38 percent of Americans still regarded the 2000 election outcome as questionable. Many Republicans believe that Democratic judges on the Florida Supreme Court tried to hand their state to Al Gore via selective partisan recounts and the illegal votes of felons and aliens. Many Democrats feel that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court tilted toward George Bush, and they refuse to accept his victory as valid. But this issue transcends red-state-versus-blue-state partisan grievances. Many Americans are convinced that politicians can’t be trusted to play by the rules, and either will commit fraud or intimidate voters at the slightest opportunity.
Indeed, the level of suspicion has grown so dramatically that it threatens to undermine the U.S. political system. A Fox News poll taken in April 2012 reported that 34 percent of voters believe supporters of voter ID laws are trying to “steal” elections by keeping eligible voters away from the polls. But more people—50 percent—think opponents of the laws are acting in bad faith by trying to increase participation from ineligible or illegal voters.
Such attitudes can create a toxic brew. The United States ranks 139th out of 163 democracies in the rate of voter participation. “If this escalates, we’re in horrendous shape as a country,” says Curtis Gans, who runs the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. “If election results are followed by lawsuits, appeals, fire, and counterfire, many people who are already saying to hell with the process are going to exit.” The more that voting is left to the zealous or self-interested few, the more we see harshly personal campaigns that dispense with any positive vision of America’s national future.
A Rasmussen Reports poll taken for our book, Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk, found that both interest in and concern about voter fraud is high. Nearly two-thirds of Americans reported they were following news reports about voter fraud closely or somewhat closely. When asked how serious a problem it is, 64 percent said “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” Interestingly, the highest levels of concern came from African Americans (64 percent), conservatives (85 percent), and those earning under $20,000 a year (71 percent). When it came to remedies, an astonishing 82 percent of respondents supported requiring that voters prove their identity before voting. The lowest support across demographic groups was still sky-high: 67 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Democrats, and 58 percent of professed liberals all backed having people prove who they say they are as a condition of voting.
The Supreme Court is in agreement with the majority. In a unanimous decision reinstating Arizona’s voter identification law in 2006, it stated:
Confidence in the integrity of our electoral processes is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy. Voter fraud drives honest citizens out of the democratic process and breeds distrust of our government. Voters who fear their legitimate votes will be outweighed by fraudulent ones will feel disenfranchised.
Every close race now carries with it the prospect of demands for recounts, lawsuits, and seating challenges in Congress. “We’re waiting for the day that pols can just cut out the middleman and settle all elections in court,” jokes Chuck Todd.
Confusion and claims of fraud are again likely this time around, especially if the election is as close as it was in 2000. Can the nation take another Florida-style controversy?
Indeed, the United States may be on the way to turning Election Day into Election Month (or Election Year) through a new legal quagmire: election by litigation. Every close race now carries with it the prospect of demands for recounts, lawsuits, and seating challenges in Congress. “We’re waiting for the day that pols can just cut out the middleman and settle all elections in court,” jokes Chuck Todd, former editor of the political tip sheet The Hotline. Such gallows humor may be entirely appropriate, given the predicament the United States faces. Much as the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork changed, apparently forever, the politics of judicial appointments, the 2000 election may have marked a permanent change in how elections can be decided: The number of election-related lawsuits has skyrocketed since 2000.
Democrats plan to have more than 10,000 lawyers on the ground in every state in November 2012, ready for action if the election is close, and they see a way to contest it. “If you think of election problems as akin to forest fires, the woods are no drier than they were in 2000, but many more people have matches,” says Doug Chapin, founder of Electionline.org, an Internet clearinghouse of election news. If the trend toward litigation continues, winners in the future may have to hope not only that they win, but that their leads are beyond “the margin of litigation.”
Some of the sloppiness that makes fraud and foul-ups in election counts possible seems to be built into the system by design. The “Motor Voter Law”—the National Voter Registration Act of 1993—the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Clinton upon entering office, imposed fraud-friendly rules on the states by requiring driver’s license bureaus and welfare agencies to register anyone applying for a license, and to offer mail-in registration with no identification needed, while making it difficult to purge “deadwood” voters (those who have died or moved). In 2012, the voter rolls in many American cities include more names than the U.S. Census listed as the total number of residents over age 18. Philadelphia’s voter rolls, for instance, have increased dramatically as the city’s population has declined. CBS’s “60 Minutes” created a stir in 1999 when it found people in California using mail-in forms to register fictitious people, or even pets, and then obtaining absentee ballots in those names. By this means, the illegal alien who assassinated the Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was registered to vote in San Pedro, California—twice.
At a time of heightened security and mundane rules that require citizens to show identification to travel or even rent a video, only 17 states require some form of documentation in order to vote.
Ironically, Mexico and many other countries have election systems that are far more secure than ours. To obtain voter credentials in Mexico, a citizen must present a photo, write a signature, and give a thumbprint. To guard against tampering, the voter card includes a picture with a hologram covering it, a magnetic strip, and a serial number. To cast a ballot, voters must present the card and be certified by a thumbprint scanner. This system was instrumental in allowing the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, the first opposition-party candidate to be elected president in 70 years.
But in the United States, at a time of heightened security and mundane rules that require citizens to show identification to travel or even rent a video, only 17 states require some form of documentation in order to vote. “Why should the important process of voting be the one exception to this rule?” asks Karen Saranita, a former fraud investigator for a Democratic state senator in California. Americans agree. Polls have consistently shown that people should be required to show a driver’s license or some other form of photo ID before they are allowed to vote.
Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, vote-buying, shady recounts, or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing, can be found in every part of the United States, although it is probably spreading because of the ever-so-tight red state/blue state divisions that have polarized the country and created so many close elections lately. Although most fraud is found in urban areas, there are recent scandals in rural Kentucky and Minnesota; St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Memphis have all had election-related scandals. Wisconsin officials convicted a New York heiress working for Al Gore of giving homeless people cigarettes if they rode in a van to the polls and voted. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for uncovering how “vote brokers” employed by mayoral candidate Xavier Suarez stole the 1997 election by tampering with 4,740 absentee ballots. Many were cast by homeless people from outside Miami who were paid $10 apiece and shuttled to the elections office in vans. All of the absentee ballots were thrown out by a court four months later, and Mr. Suarez’s opponent was installed as mayor.
But such interventions are rare, even when fraud is proven. In 1997, the House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to demand that the Justice Department prosecute Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a group that investigators for the House Administration Committee said registered hundreds of illegal voters who were not citizens in a razor-thin congressional race in Orange County, California. But federal immigration officials refused to cooperate, citing “privacy” concerns, and nothing was done beyond yanking a federal contract that paid Hermandad to conduct citizenship classes. The same year, a Senate probe of fraud in a Louisiana Senate race found more than 1,500 cases in which two voters provided the same Social Security number. But further investigations collapsed after Democratic senators abandoned the probe, calling it unfair; Attorney General Janet Reno then removed FBI agents from the case because the probe wasn’t “bipartisan.”
A note about partisanship: Since Democrats figure prominently in the vast majority of examples of election fraud described in this article, some readers will jump to the conclusion that this is a one-sided attack on a single party. We do not maintain that Republicans are inherently more virtuous or honest than anyone else in politics. Voter fraud occurs both in Republican strongholds such as Kentucky hollows and Democratic bastions such as south Texas. When Republicans operated political machines (such as Philadelphia’s Meehan dynasty, up until 1951, or the patronage mill of Nassau County, New York, until the 1990s), they were fully capable of bending—and breaking—the rules. Earl Mazo, the journalist who exhaustively documented the election fraud in Richard Daley’s Chicago that may have handed Illinois to John F. Kennedy in the photo-finish 1960 election, says there was “definitely fraud” in downstate Republican counties, “but they didn’t have the votes to counterbalance Chicago.”
While they have not had the control of local and administrative offices necessary to tilt the rules improperly in their favor, Republicans have at times been guilty of improper tactics. In December 2011, Maryland political consultant Paul Schurick was convicted of authorizing robocalls on Election Day that used false information to discourage 112,000 registered Democrats in largely black Baltimore and in Prince George’s County from voting in 2010. Schurick was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and a probation period of four years.
Schurick was the campaign manager for the ultimately unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and paid Julius Henson, a black Democratic consultant who was a gun for hire, to write the robocall script. It implied that the call came from Democrats who had already won, and read: “Our goals have been met. The polls are correct, and we took it back. We’re OK. Relax. Everything’s fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.”
Henson, who was convicted in May 2012 on one of four counts in the incident, has used sleazy tactics on behalf of many candidates in Maryland, usually Democrats. In 1998 he was behind an effort to portray Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey as a racist. And in 2002, while working for Democrats, he vowed to portray Ehrlich, who was running his first race for governor that year, as a “Nazi.” By 2010, he was working for Ehrlich as a campaign consultant.
In their book Dirty Little Secrets, Larry Sabato and co-author Glenn Simpson, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, noted another factor as to why Republican election fraud is less common. Republican-base voters are middle-class and not easily induced to commit fraud, while “the pool of people who appear to be available and more vulnerable to an invitation to participate in vote fraud tend to lean Democratic.” Some liberal activists that Sabato and Simpson interviewed even partly justified fraudulent electoral behavior on the grounds that because the poor and dispossessed have so little political clout, “extraordinary measures [for example, stretching the absentee ballot or registration rules] are required to compensate.” Paul Herrison, director of the Center for American Politics at the University of Maryland, agrees that “most incidents of wide-scale voter fraud reportedly occur in inner cities, which are largely populated by minority groups.” Democrats are far more skilled at encouraging poor people—who need money—to participate in vote-buying schemes. “I had no choice. I was hungry that day,” Thomas Felder told The Miami Herald in explaining why he illegally voted in a mayoral election. “You wanted the money, you were told who to vote for.” Sometimes it’s not just food that vote stealers are hungry for. A former Democratic congressman gave one of the authors this explanation of why voting irregularities more often crop up in his party’s backyard: “When many Republicans lose an election, they go back into what they call the private sector. When many Democrats lose an election, they lose power and money. They need to eat, and people will do an awful lot in order to eat.”
Investigations of voter fraud are inherently political; and because they often involve race, they often are not zealously pursued or prosecuted. Many federal and state prosecutors remain leery of tackling fraud or intimidation, and sentences imposed for convictions are often far too light. While voting irregularities are common, the number of people who have spent hard time in jail in the last few years as a result of a conviction for voter fraud can be counted on your fingers.
The former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, Donald Washington, admits: “[M]ost of the time, we can’t do much of anything [about ballot-box improprieties] until the election is over. And the closer we get to the election, the less willing we are to get involved because of just the appearance of impropriety, just the appearance of the federal government somehow shading how this election ought to occur.” Several prosecutors told us they fear charges of racism or of a return to Jim Crow vote-suppression tactics if they pursue fraud cases. Hilary Shelton of the NAACP had the following exchange with Eric Shawn of Fox News in 2012:
Shawn: “You talk about Jim Crow. Is voter ID similar?”
Shawn: “Even to murder? Even to lynchings?”
Shelton: “It’s the same thing in many ways. Now look, we can argue that it’s not as violent. It’s not as bloody. Bottom line is, what kind of effect does it have?”
Artur Davis, the former Democratic congressman from Alabama who seconded Barack Obama’s nomination for president at the 2008 Democratic convention, finds that analogy preposterous. “I never heard a single voter in my 68 percent African American district complain to me about ID being something that was onerous or burdensome or difficult.”
And when voters are disenfranchised by the counting of improperly cast ballots or outright fraud, their civil rights are violated just as surely as if they were prevented from voting. The integrity of the ballot box is just as important to the credibility of elections as is access to it.
He went on to say: “The idea that people in low-income African American communities are bothered or intimidated or burdened by attaching just a few responsibilities to their all-important core right of voting—it’s a condescending idea. It’s a patronizing idea. If the law works the same with respect to everybody, it’s free and clear of whatever history or bigotry or racial animus [exists].”
And when voters are disenfranchised by the counting of improperly cast ballots or outright fraud, their civil rights are violated just as surely as if they were prevented from voting. The integrity of the ballot box is just as important to the credibility of elections as is access to it. Voting irregularities have a long pedigree in America, stretching back to the founding of the nation—though most people thought the “bad old days” had ended in 1948, after pistol-packing Texas sheriffs helped stuff Ballot Box 13, stealing a U.S. senate seat and setting Lyndon Johnson on his road to the White House. Then came the 2004 primary election, when Representative Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat, charged that during a recount a missing ballot box reappeared in south Texas with enough votes to make his opponent the Democratic nominee by 58 votes.
Even after the events in Florida in 2000, the media tend to downplay or ignore stories of election incompetence, manipulation, or theft. Allowing such abuses to vanish into an informational black hole in effect legitimates them. The refusal to insist on simple procedural changes like requiring a photo ID to vote, secure technology, and more vigorous prosecutions accelerates the U.S. drift toward banana-republic elections.
Scrutinizing its own elections the way the United States has traditionally scrutinized voting in developing countries is a sad, but necessary, step in the right direction.
Mr. Fund is Senior Editor at The American Spectator. Mr. von Spakovsky is Senior Legal Fellow in the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article is an adapted excerpt from their book Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter, August, 2012).