Real Live Voter Fraud

Jaded by relentless GOP vote suppression efforts directed towards phantom voter impersonators, it’s easy to forget that real fraud actually happens. Today Adam Liptak of the New York Times surveys some recent problems with absentee ballots, which now make up twenty percent of all votes.

Recently, he writes, mayoral elections in Indiana and Illinois have been invalidated because of mail ballot fraud. This year in Florida, one woman was found guilty of forging an elderly woman’s signature on one ballot, and possessing 31 absentee forms herself, while another was charged with fraud after requesting, then filing, absentee ballots on behalf of unsuspecting voters.

Liptak’s report follows a piece earlier this week by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post, which documented another form of fraud: good ol’ fashioned vote buying. Stories like this one, out of Kentucky, are typical:

“I was in town one day at a local convenience store, and someone asked me if I wanted to make a little money on that day,” Charles Russell of Jackson, Ky., testified about how he agreed to sell his vote in a local primary election in 2010. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’” Russell was eventually promised $45 and given a slip of paper with names.

Another case, in West Memphis, featured a candidate who successfully bought his way to the State House by wooing “absentee voters with cash, whiskey and vodka and at least one with a chicken dinner,” before pleading guilty and resigning his seat.

What do forged absentee ballots and vote-buying have in common? They occur more often than in-person impersonation (which is virtually non-existent) and are unaffected by voter ID laws. What’s more, states like Florida and Texas, which recently enacted legislation making it harder to vote in most respects (laws currently being challenged by the courts and the DOJ) feature no-excuse absentee voting, making it easier to commit fraud that way. As Liptak explains, that’s probably no coincidence: “Republicans are in fact more likely than Democrats to vote absentee. In the 2008 general election in Florida, 47 percent of absentee voters were Republicans and 36 percent were Democrats.” (Liptak adds: “Voters in nursing homes can be subjected to subtle pressure, outright intimidation or fraud.”)

The moral of Liptak and Fahrenthold’s stories is this: people just aren’t willing to commit a felony to vote in someone’s place–the only kind of fraud ID laws target. Rather, politicians themselves usually commit the fraud, by forging absentee ballots or paying people to vote for them. In addition, when states enact restrictive voter ID laws, it only encourages them to vote by mail, where errors and corruption are more rife.

No matter how implausible they are, however, suspicions of impersonation refuse to disappear. Even in true-blue Rhode Island, which passed a voter ID law last year, tales of voter impersonation were repeated so often, I found myself wondering if they were true. When I was reporting a piece on the state’s law for TNR, I encountered not a few testimonials about a certain vote buyer employed at the Providence water-supply board, who supposedly accepted thousands of dollars from local candidates to pay foot soldiers to vote on behalf of other people. His name, they tell me, is “El Macho.”

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.