September 5, 2008 | Executive Summary on Legal Issues
In the 1990s in Greene County, Alabama, citizens, local political candidates, federal and state prosecutors, and a local newspaper joined together to fight absentee ballot fraud in the county, one of the poorest in Alabama. Unfortunately, liberal groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked equally hard to undermine the effort.
Even as the investigation uncovered massive wrongdoing, so-called civil rights groups objected at every turn, alleging a plot to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. But in the end, justice prevailed with the convictions of 11 conspirators who had fixed local elections for years. The Greene County case is proof that absentee ballot fraud is real and not a cover story for an imagined voter-disenfranchisement conspiracy.
The most important lesson of Greene County is that absentee ballots are extremely vulnerable to voter fraud. The case shows how absentee ballot fraud really works, and it is a reality very different from the claims of partisans and advocacy groups. More broadly, the case shows how voter fraud threatens the right to free and fair elections and how those most often harmed are poor and minorities. This directly rebuts the usual partisan conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
According to some "civil rights" groups, practically every effort to legislate against or prosecute voter fraud is intended to keep minorities and the poor from voting at all. Concern over voter fraud, say some partisans, is simply Republicans' cover to intimidate voters and raise obstacles to minority voting. Indeed, groups like the NAACP argue that racism and intimidation are the motivation for voter fraud prosecutions, and some prominent Democrats dismiss voter fraud as virtually nonexistent. As a result, many prosecutors ignore serious evidence of vote fraud for fear of the political consequences, and elections continue to be stolen.
Greene County shows that these groups have it backwards. Voter fraud prosecutions do not intimidate voters; what does intimidate them is the knowledge that voter fraud is routine and goes unpunished. Too often, not only is no one willing to take action against it, but the organizations that victims expect to help them instead take the side of the vote thieves. In contrast to the views of such organizations, an overwhelming majority of citizens support such common-sense and nonpartisan reforms as requiring voter identification when an individual votes.
Further, the Greene County case demonstrates that voter fraud need not be partisan in nature. Partisan conspiracy theories about election reform just do not apply to intra-party voter fraud in primary elections in heavily Democratic or Republican jurisdictions where primary results determine who wins in the general election. The perpetrators of voter fraud, particularly in small rural counties, are often political incumbents whose control of local government is threatened by challengers of the same political party. In Greene County, almost all of the candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, were both Democrats and African-Americans.
Although some partisans will cling to their debunked conspiracy theories, those who honestly seek to protect voters' rights must study the methods and means of voter fraud in order to combat it. The movement toward absentee voting and all-mail elections threatens electoral integrity. Absentee ballots make it much easier for corrupt campaign organizations and candidates (like those in Greene County) to manipulate the vote. They are able to engage in tactics such as requesting absentee ballots in the names of registered voters, particularly poor residents and senior citizens, and either intimidating them into casting votes or fraudulently completing their ballots for them. With the growth of no-fault absentee voting and all-mail elections, there is the real risk that fraud will affect more election results and wipe out voting rights hard won by the civil rights movement.
The solutions are straightforward. First, absentee ballots should be reserved for individuals who cannot vote in person on Election Day or at early voting sites prior to the election. They should not be available just for convenience's sake, because the risk of fraud is too high. Second, individuals submitting absentee ballots should be required to provide a copy of an identification document containing a photograph (e.g., a driver's license) with their absentee ballots. Third, to deter the forgery of voter signatures, the signatures on absentee ballots should be either notarized or witnessed by at least two other individuals who provide their addresses and telephone numbers, and the number of voter signatures that any single individual is allowed to witness should be limited. Finally, to avoid deterring prosecutions and damaging public confidence, civil rights organizations and others should refrain from leaping to the conclusion that voter fraud investigations are politically or racially motivated.
There is reason to fear that certain features of the vote-fraud conspiracy may play out again in the 2008 elections. Already this year, strong allegations of absentee ballot fraud, executed just as in Greene County, have been levied in several Alabama counties, with local officials (some of whom are suspects) claiming once again that the "inquiries are motivated by racism and partisanship."
The Greene County case demonstrates the ease with which fraudulent absentee ballots can be used to steal elections, the tactics used to steal those votes, the complete failure of many liberal advocacy groups to protect the interests of vulnerable voters who have been disenfranchised by fraud, and the value of vigorous law enforcement to protect legitimate voters' rights. It also points the way toward common-sense solutions to make voting more secure and increase public confidence in the electoral process.
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.