Most Americans that I speak with who are aware of America's past history of voter fraud usually believe such fraud does not occur in our modem, computer-literate and high-tech republic. Unfortunately, however, Texas ballot box stuffing and Chicago ghost voters have simply been augmented by other methods of voter fraud. A judge threw out the results of the Miami mayor's race because of massive absentee ballot fraud involving over 5,000 ballots in 1998, not 1898. More than twenty individuals, including two county commissioners and a sheriff, were convicted of voter fraud in Dodge County, Georgia, in 1996, not 1896.
There have been numerous cases of voter fraud in the past few years. Many of the measures that could be taken to prevent such fraud are not being taken either because of bureaucratic neglect or because federal law actually prevents states from taking such measures and encourages fraud. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993,1 commonly referred to as "Motor Voter," was intended to reverse the declining voter turnout of the past 30 years by removing the supposed barriers that prevented individuals from registering to vote. Although the number of Americans registering to vote has increased under Motor Voter by some seven million,2 voter turnout has continued to decline--down to 36% of the voting age population in the 1998 Congressional elections.3
Congress misdiagnosed the reasons for the decline in voter turnout. Large numbers of Americans do not vote for reasons ranging from apathy to satisfaction with the status quo. As has become apparent, the requirements for registration were never the reason for declining turnout. Unfortunately, without pausing to examine Motor Voter's impact on actual voter turnout, the states have continued relaxing voting requirements even further. A recent study by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate concluded that "progressive" reforms like Motor Voter and early voting that were intended to increase participation and turnout have often achieved the opposite result.4 All of these "reforms" have increased the opportunity for election fraud.
The election process is made up of two major steps: the registration by eligible citizens with state election authorities and the casting of a vote during an election. Unfortunately, the registration process has been corrupted because Motor Voter made it illegal for states to require an individual to show identification prior to registering to vote and mandated that states allow mail-in registration. This made it possible for individuals who are not citizens to register and there is no mechanism in place to prevent false registrations. Studies done of voter registration rolls by independent groups have found them full of duplicate names, erroneous entries such as "God," household pets, noncitizens, and even, as reported by CBS' Sixty Minutes, the crew of the Starship Enterprise.5
It is important to understand that state election officials generally make no check of registration forms to authenticate that the individual registering really exists or is using his real name. This was graphically illustrated in 1996 by Boston Globe colunmist Jeff Jacoby, who wrote a column about how his cat had registered to vote in Ohio, Illinois, and Massachusetts, and then requested (and received) absentee ballots in all three states.6
In regard to false registrations, the impact of Motor Voter can be minimized. Until Motor Voter is amended by Congress to outlaw mail-in registration and allow identification checks before registering, states should mandate that anyone who registers by mail has to vote in person the first time they cast a vote--and every state should require that photo identification be shown before an individual is allowed to vote.
The registration of noncitizens is another concern. The investigation into the Dornan-Sanchez Congressional race in California found numerous noncitizens and illegal aliens who had not only registered to vote, but had actually voted. Ten percent of a random sample of 3,000 new voters registered in California's 39th Assembly district that was checked by an independent election group contained phony addresses and many registrants who admitted they were not U.S. citizens.7 However, both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Social Security Administration refuse to cooperate with state election officials to do routine checks of registrations to insure that the individuals registering are U.S. citizens. The Wall Street Journal highlighted a U.S. Justice Department directive last year that constrained election officials from even inquiring about a registrant's citizenship status.8 When states are not allowed to check someone's identification or citizenship before allowing them to register to vote and federal agencies will not check registrants to confirm that they are U.S. citizens, ineligible voters will continue to register and will stay on the voter registration lists, increasing the likelihood of fraud.
Motor Voter also severely restricted the ability of states to remove the names of ineligible voters from the voter registration lists. As a result, the percentage of ineligible voters that are registered has steadily increased, creating a source pool for someone who wants to steal an election by generating fraudulent votes. Experts believe that anywhere from 10-20% of registrants are ineligible, unqualified, or bogus voters.9
Since it is very easy to obtain an absentee ballot in most states, individuals can register to vote, request an absentee ballot, and cast a vote without any election official ever seeing that individual. This has not gone unnoticed by those who would manipulate the election process - a search of the house of one of the campaign workers arrested in the Miami case found numerous mail-in registration and absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots.
The state laws governing absentee ballots vary, but many of them have glaring loopholes which, in conjunction with the registration problems caused by Motor Voter, facilitate fraud. The basic premise of state laws should be to minimize access to absentee ballots by anyone other than the voter. States should only allow absentee ballots to be requested in writing by the registered voter--not by telephone and not by family members or anyone else whose signature cannot be compared to the signature on the original voter registration form. To prevent others from completing a voter's ballot, voters' signatures on absentee ballots should be either notarized or signed in the presence of at least two witnesses, and no individual should be allowed to witness more than two absentee ballots in any election.
No state should allow any campaign, political party, individual or organization to collect absentee ballots from voters and deliver them to election officials, yet California was poised to pass just such a bill before its legislature recessed in September.10 These measures would make it harder for campaigns and party workers to request absentee ballots in the names of low-income housing residents and senior citizens and then either intimidate them into casting votes for a particular candidate or actually complete the ballots for them.
Another concept that has already been instituted in Oregon and is being considered by other states is mail-in balloting. With mail-in balloting, ballots are mailed to all registered voters and are completed and returned to election officials in the same way that absentee ballots are. All of the problems inherent in absentee ballots which have made them the ballot of choice for individuals who want to commit voter fraud apply equally to mail-in balloting, as well as to permanent absentee balloting. Permanent absentee balloting allows a voter to register his request that ballots be permanently mailed to him. Absentee and mail-in ballots should be reserved for those individuals who have a legitimate inability to physically access the polls by reason of absence or illness. Mail-in balloting and permanent absentee balloting also raise concerns over the obliteration of the secrecy of the traditional polling place.
In addition to the problems generated by Motor Voter and state absentee ballot laws, some states have instituted early voting statutes that allow voters to vote for a period of time prior to election day. Such statutes seem relatively innocuous at first glance. However, not only does early voting increase the cost of elections and campaigns, it gives state election officials the ability to manipulate voting outcomes and makes it almost impossible for independent observers to monitor the voting process. Opening early voting locations in particular precincts that past election results show vote strongly for a particular party may enable election officials to generate more votes for a particular candidate or party. The Voting lntegrity Project11 investigated several such cases in Texas. In one, a school bond referendum which had not passed in prior years in traditional voting passed when early voting was instituted on a selective basis. Polls were only opened early in school polling locations with extended hours during extra-curricular activities when parents would be present. VIP documented that early voting provided the winning margin for the referendum--the referendum would have failed if the votes cast on election day had been the only votes counted. VIP is now challenging early voting in federal court in Texas.12
Now, several states are considering moving elections into cyberspace. Internet voting is being studied by the states of Washington, California and Florida and the Pentagon wants to test such a system for its overseas military personnel. As detailed in a recent study done by the Voting Integrity Project,13 Internet voting poses serious security risks because of the current state of the technology and the threat of wholesale theft of elections and interference by hackers or terrorists. Additionally, even a perfectly secure Internet voting system could not guarantee a fraud-free election given the corruption of the registration process and the ability of individuals to register without showing any identification. Until Motor Voter is fixed, no state should even consider instituting Internet voting. As with early voting, cyber elections would make it very difficult for independent organizations to monitor the election process and the casting of votes. The differing levels of Internet access among various demographic groups is also a serious problem that has to be examined before Internet voting is implemented.
The right to cast our vote in a fair and secure election is our most precious right. It is the basis of our republic and the foundation of our constitutional form of government. Every American citizen who is eligible to vote should be able to do so with a minimum of administrative procedures and statutory requirements. None of the measures which can and should be taken to amend Motor Voter and tighten state election laws would infringe on the rights of citizens to vote. Fraud can be deterred and prevented without diminishing voter turnout
* Hans A. von Spakovsky is an attorney and government affairs consultant. He is on the National Advisory Board of the Voting Integrity Project, the Executive Director of the Voting Integrity Project Legislative Alliance, and a member of the Atlanta branch of the Federalist Society.
- Public Law 103-31,42 U.S.C.1973gg.
- "FEC: Voter Law Increases Rolls by 7M," Associated Press, July 7, 1999.
- Report released February 8, 1999, by the Conunittee for the Study ofthe American Electorate.
- Los Angeles County found 16,000 fraudulent voter registration cards of nonexistent voters in October of 1998. "Voter Registration Cards Subject ofInquiry," Los Angeles Times, October 14,1998, Page A-3.
- "How to Stuff the Ballot Box," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13,1996, Page 7B
- "The Motor Voter Myth," National Review, November II, 1996, page 42.
- "Eroding Elections," The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 1998.
- See for example "Jones Releases Statewide and County Report of Registration," News Release of California Secretary of State Bill Jones, October 24, 1996.
- A.B 1426, which had passed the California Assembly, was placed in an inactive file by motion in the Senate on the day the legislature recessed although it had been given a "do pass" recommendation by the Appropriations Committee.
- The Voting Integrity Project is a national, nonpartisan educational and charitable organization concerned with election integrity.
- One of the grounds for the challenge includes violation of the federal requirement that federal elections be held on one uniform day across the United States as outlined in I U.S.C. Sec. 1,2 U.S.C. Sec. 7, and 3 U.S.C. Sec.!. The case is Voting Integrity Project v. Bomer, Civ. No. 99-247 (S.D. Tex.). VIP also has a suit pending against the State of Oregon over mailin balloting which is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Voting Integrity Project v. Keisling, Civ. No. 99-35337 (9th Cir.).
- "Are We Ready for Internet Voting?" Deborah M. Phillips, The Voting Integrity Project, August 12, 1999.