The Heritage Foundation

Special Report #24 on Legal Issues

October 28, 2008

October 28, 2008 | Special Report on Legal Issues

Democracy in Danger: Case Studies of Election Fraud

There is no question that America is the most successful experiment in democracy that the world has ever known. Under our Constitution, we have the ability to pick our political leaders and our legislative representatives at all levels of government, in the federal government and in state, county, and local governments.

While we are a great republic, we also have an unfortunate and long history of ballot fraud. Examples abound, from an election in New York in 1844 in which 135 percent of the eligible voters turned out to Lyndon Johnson's infamous Ballot Box 13 in his 1948 Senate election. More recently, in 2003 a mayoral election in East Chicago, Indi­ana, and in 2005 a state senate race in Tennessee were both overturned due to voter fraud. As the Supreme Court noted in its decision in 2008 upholding Indiana's photo identification requirement, flagrant examples of voter fraud "have been documented throughout this Nation's history by respected historians and journalists." Those examples "demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election."

Despite such extensive evidence, however, many partisan activists, liberal academics, and media elites deny that voter fraud exists or that any steps need to be taken to protect the integrity of our election process. The Commission on Federal Election Reform chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III profoundly disagreed. The eminent and non-partisan Commission found that our "electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters."

The best way of determining the proper safeguards to "deter and detect" voter fraud that endangers our demo­cratic process is to examine actual reported cases. By reviewing how this fraud was discovered, investigated, and prosecuted, we can determine the best legislative and regulatory measures to ensure our elections will not be stolen. The studies that follow examine extensive voter fraud in Chicago in the 1982 governor's race, a successful 14-year conspiracy in New York that affected primary elections, the outright theft of local elections in Greene County, Ala­bama, in 1994 through absentee ballot fraud, and the growing problem of illegal voting by noncitizens.

Elections decide not only who leads our country, but as a consequence of that vote, the future public policies that will be implemented by our government. The right to vote in a free and fair election is the most basic civil right, on which depends all of the other rights of the American people protected by the Bill of Rights. These case studies hold lessons that can help us preserve our democracy for another two hundred years.

Read the case studies (PDF)

Hans A. von Spakovsky served as a member of the Federal Election Commission for two years. Before that, he was Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he specialized in voting and election issues. He also served as a county election official in Georgia for five years as a member of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

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