|San Diego Union Tribune
November 1, 2006
Vote fraud fears fewer, yet some back voter IDs
By Dana Wilkie
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – To pull off the perfect
vote-buying scheme on Election Day, you'll probably need
wads of cash, which you'll need to slip to hand-picked
voters, who will have to be watched by a polling-place
co-conspirator, who must find some way to peek at secret
ballots to ensure your accomplices vote as you paid them to.
Sound too elaborate to get away with? It is, say some
election experts, who conclude that widespread election
fraud – whether vote-buying, voting by noncitizens or
casting ballots for dead people – is relatively rare, in
some cases requiring nearly impossible coordination and
Yet to hear the political rhetoric, one would think vote
fraud is as easy today as it was in an era when scammers
needed only to slip phony paper ballots into a cardboard box
while heads were turned.
“I don't think there's any system of voting that is
immune to cheating,” said Barry Weinberg, former deputy
chief of voting for the U.S. Justice Department's civil
rights division. “It's just that modern methods of voting
have made traditional polling place fraud far more
difficult. And the more organization you need, the more
difficult it becomes, and the more likely you are to be
Even some who support voting reforms designed to curtail
fraud acknowledge that it is not widespread, but they also
point out that it takes only a few illegal votes to swing an
election in a close contest.
“Do we need 10,000 cases of (fraud) before we're
concerned about it?” asks Thor Hearne, counsel to the
conservative American Center for Voting Rights, which
supports voter identification laws now being promoted in
many states, and by some in Congress.
Election fraud – the corruption of the process by which
votes are cast and counted – is typically the justification
for voter identification measures, which supporters say will
combat fraud. Critics say such measures suppress voting by
minorities, the elderly and others who may have trouble
obtaining new IDs.
Charges of election fraud have been going on for more
than a century. But there are few independent, scientific
studies that examine the extent of the problem in this
country. Reports tend to be written by partisan groups, rely
on anecdotal evidence, or depend on news accounts that
report fraud allegations but not the final election outcome.
Nor have researchers had time to thoroughly examine newer
voting methods, such as the electronic voting machines that
critics fear are susceptible to voter error, technical
glitches and hacking. The concern there is fraud in the
recording or tabulation of votes, which would not be
deterred by voter identification laws.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a government
agency created after the 2000 presidential voting debacle in
Florida, is preparing an independent review of election
fraud. In a preliminary report to the commission last May,
which was released publicly last month, commission
consultants concluded that fraud is “less of a problem than
is commonly described in the political debate.”
“There is widespread, but not unanimous agreement that
there is little polling place fraud, or at least much less
than is claimed, including voter impersonation, 'dead'
voters, non-citizens voting and felon voters,” the authors
wrote. “Those few who believe it occurs often enough to be a
concern say . . . it is impossible to show the extent to
which it happens.”
The report, written by two elections experts, found that
the “most systematic look at fraud” so far appears to be an
April 2003 study: “Securing the Vote: An Analysis of
That study, written by an independent, New York-based
think tank called Demos, acknowledges well-known
election-fraud allegations, including those surrounding the
1997 mayoral election in Miami. In that case, a court found
fraudulent and criminal abuse of absentee ballot laws,
forged signatures and stolen ballots. An appeals court
voided all absentee ballots and handed the race to incumbent
Joe Carollo on the basis of ballots cast at the polls.
But the preliminary report to the commission also
concludes the “available evidence suggests that the
incidence of election fraud is minimal across the 50 U.S.
states and rarely affects election outcomes.”
It notes that election officials typically do a good job
of protecting against fraud and that the conditions giving
rise to fraud “have steadily declined over the last
“The disenfranchisement of voters through antiquated
voting systems, system error and improper management of
registration databases, as occurred in Florida in the 2000
election, is a far bigger problem than traditional forms of
election fraud,” the report concludes.
Hearne, a member of the Election Assistance Commission
board, warns that the report submitted to the commission was
not supposed to be a final analysis. He notes that an
American Center for Voting Rights study found that “vote
fraud and voter registration fraud were significant problems
in at least a dozen states around the country” in 2004.
Even if such fraud is not widespread, Hearne said, it can
take only a few illegal votes to decide a close contest.
“You can decide the election in battleground states if
someone steals as many as 100 votes.” The report concludes
that fraud may have contributed to an improper victory for
Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat.
Fraud allegations during the 2004 election included
complaints about misleading fliers and phone calls, partisan
challenges to voting eligibility, insufficient voting
machines for some polling places and long lines.
Proponents of voter identification laws tend to be
Republicans, who argue that such measures will weed out
those who try to cast bogus ballots. Critics of voter ID
rules contend they do nothing to combat fraud where it is
most likely to occur – in the tabulating. More important,
they say, such laws will disenfranchise immigrants, the
poor, the elderly and the disabled – who may avoid the polls
if they are intimidated or find that getting a proper ID is
too troublesome or expensive.
In September, the Republican-controlled House passed a
bill that would require government-issued photo IDs for
voters in federal elections. The Senate has yet to consider
Arizona, Georgia and Missouri have enacted voter ID
requirements, though all have been challenged in court and
in some cases have been blocked. Ohio and Florida have made
their voter ID requirements stricter. North Carolina now
requires the information voters put on registration forms to
match what the state has in its motor vehicle or Social
Security databases. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and
Pennsylvania are considering voter ID requirements.
The topic has surfaced in California's secretary of state
race. Republican incumbent Bruce McPherson says voters
should present some type of ID before casting ballots, but
Democratic challenger Debra Bowen argues that only a handful
of illegal voting cases across the nation have ever been
Tova Wang, an elections expert at the nonpartisan Century
Foundation who helped write the preliminary report for the
U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said voter ID measures
could be used “to suppress the vote.”
“The more difficult it is to vote, the theory is, the
fewer people who are less wealthy or less educated will
vote,” she said.