WE MAY BE ON THE BRINK of repeating the 2000 Florida election debacle—but this time in several states, with allegations of voter fraud and manipulation of voting machines added to the generalized chaos that sent the Bush-Gore race into overtime.
With its hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and U.S. Supreme Court intervention, the Florida fiasco forced us to confront an ugly reality: 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 this year, when the Pew Center on the States found the names of 1.8 million 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 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.
Indeed, the level of suspicion surrounding election integrity has grown so dramatically that it threatens to undermine the U.S. political system. The furor over state voter ID laws offers a case in point. Thirty-four percent of voters believe such laws are intended to “steal elections by decreasing legal votes from minorities,” according to a Fox News poll. On the other side, 50 percent think opponents of the laws want to “steal elections by increasing illegal votes by non-citizens and other ineligible voters.”
A Rasmussen Reports poll of likely voters found that 64 percent think voter fraud is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. Interestingly, some of the highest levels of concern came from African Americans (64 percent) and those earning under $20,000 a year (71 percent). When it came to remedies, an astonishing 82 percent supported a requirement that voters prove their identity before voting. Even 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.
The Supreme Court agrees 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.”
Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, vote buying, shady recounts, or ballot-box stuffing, can be found in almost every state. However, the ever-so-tight red state/blue state divisions that have polarized the country and created so many close elections lately have upped the potential.
Although most fraud is found in urban areas, there have been recent scandals in rural Kentucky and Minnesota. St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Memphis have all had election-related scandals. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for uncovering how “vote brokers” employed by mayoral candidate Xavier Suarez stole an 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. Democrat Al Franken was seated as a U.S. senator from Minnesota in 2009 after being declared the winner by 312 votes. Only afterward did we learn that 1,100 felons voted illegally in that election. To date, nearly 200 of them have been convicted for knowingly breaking the law.
Investigations of voter fraud are inherently political, and because they often involve race, they are often not zealously pursued. Many federal and state prosecutors remain leery of tackling fraud, and sentences imposed for convictions are often far too light.
Donald Washington, former U.S. attorney for the western district of Louisiana, 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 say they fear charges of racism or of 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 (and spoke at this year’s Republican 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.”
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.
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 legitimizes them. The refusal to insist on simple procedural changes like a photo ID requirement for voters, secure technology, and more vigorous prosecutions accelerates the country’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.