Almost everyone expects that this year's elections will be close, but few realize that the margin of victory could be affected by fraudulently cast absentee ballots. With increasing numbers of voters casting ballots by mail, the threat of fraud is real and growing. It's important that voters understand the risk and why this problem has gone under the radar for so long. The short answer: Blame crooked candidates aided and abetted by left-wing civil-rights groups that have lost their way.
Evidence has already surfaced of possible absentee ballot fraud in 2008 primary elections in Alabama including in Perry County, one of the centers of the civil-rights movement. Unfortunately, some are once again claiming that any investigation must be "motivated by racism and partisanship." That has happened before. In the 1990s in Greene County, Alabama, local citizens and prosecutors joined together to fight absentee ballot fraud in this predominantly black 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, to the surprise of local black challengers whose elections had been stolen. They could not believe that, instead of helping them, the NAACP defended those who committed the fraud. The local tax assessor, the first black who had been elected to that post in the county, was furious: "if the NAACP sides with these . . . people who stole election after election . . . it is tantamount to the organization defending policemen that used the fire hoses and dogs." He was labeled the "Chief Uncle Tom" because of his condemnation of the fraud and his call for an investigation of black officials involved.
Even as the investigation of the 1994 election uncovered hundreds of fraudulent absentee ballots, so-called civil-rights groups objected at every turn, alleging a plot to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Over 1,400 absentee ballots had flooded in on the night of the election - one-third of the total ballots - and more than 1,000 of those ballots had been brought to the local post office by five people. In the end, justice prevailed with the convictions of 11 conspirators who had fixed local elections for years, including a county commissioner and a city councilman who was a vice president of the SCLC.
The most important lesson of Greene County is that absentee ballots are extremely vulnerable to voter fraud. More broadly, the case shows how voter fraud is real and how those most often harmed are the poor and minorities. In Greene County, the county government, a source of employment and benefits for local citizens, had been so badly run by those involved in the fraud that it went bankrupt due to extensive debt and illegal spending. Locals agree that the voter-fraud convictions were essential for putting the county on the road to financial recovery.
However, 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. Indeed, they argue that racism and intimidation are the sole motivation for voter-fraud prosecutions and 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 - turnout increased in the county after the successful prosecutions. What does intimidate voters is the knowledge that voter fraud is routine and goes unpunished. Too often, 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 - including minorities - support such prosecutions and common-sense reforms like requiring identification when an individual votes.
Further, the Greene County case demonstrates that voter fraud need not be partisan in nature. Partisan conspiracy theories just do not apply to intra-party voter fraud in primary elections in heavily Democratic or Republican jurisdictions where the election is essentially decided in the primary. 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, most of the candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, were African-American Democrats.
The unfortunate movement towards no-fault absentee voting and all-mail elections where ballots are cast in an unmonitored setting makes it much easier to manipulate the vote. Corrupt individuals and organizations can take advantage of the lax system by intimidating voters into casting votes for favored candidates or by fraudulently completing their ballots for them. The risk exists that fraud will affect more election results and wipe out voting rights hard won by the civil-rights movement.
The Greene County case demonstrates the ease with which fraudulent absentee ballots can be used to steal elections, the 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 voters' rights. We can only hope that law-enforcement and election officials will not be deterred from trying to prevent or prosecute such fraud in the upcoming election.
- Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He served as a member of the Federal Election Commission and as counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served as a county election official in Georgia as a member of the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections. His new paper "Absentee Ballot Fraud: A Stolen Election in Greene County, Alabama," is available at www.heritage.org.
First appeared in the National Review