San Diego Union Tribune

November 1, 2006

Vote fraud fears fewer, yet some back voter IDs


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 planning.

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 found out.”

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 Election Fraud.”

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 century.”

“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 it.

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 prosecuted.

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.


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