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Voter Fraud: The Crime that Disenfranchises Us All

The issue of electoral (commonly—if slightly inaccurately—summed up as “voter”) fraud stands at a curious place in our culture.  No one denies that it’s part of our history, and many acknowledge that it remains a reality.  But despite the fact that voter fraud ought to be the ultimate in bipartisan issues, it has become a surprisingly contentious political topic, with some claiming that it is a nonexistent ruse designed to “intimidate” or even opposing the most basic legal protections against it.  In truth, electoral fraud disenfranchises us all, making it worthy of rooting out on principle alone, as even a single instance undermines our political system and our freedoms.

An Introduction to Electoral Fraud

Though the classic example of voter fraud in the public imagination may be the image of people fraudulently voting in the names of dead or fictional citizens or being turned away from polling places via intimidation and threats, electoral fraud is both broader and more insidious than its Hollywood image.

Organizational fraud is the systematic effort by a group (or groups) to sway an election through vote buying and incentivization, obtaining and mailing fraudulent absentee ballots, and/or affecting the vote count by tampering with ballots, destroying ballots, etc.  Individual fraud occurs when a person misrepresents himself (or others) as eligible to vote, registers or votes multiple time or as other persons, etc.  Because of our system of voting, which separates registration and eligibility from the actual point of voting (and then further splits voting into absentee and at the polling place), there are multiple opportunities to commit fraud throughout the process.  And people have found ways to exploit each one of them.

There are, of course, historical cases of vote buying, and the history of civil rights in this country is partially the history of voter fraud by disenfranchisement, as a variety of corrupt laws and legal, economic, and physical threats operated to deny citizens the vote as a group.  In the United States, widespread fraud of this type (especially for presidential elections) is thought to have been nearly eliminated.  However, it should be noted that this may reflect in part the difficulty of obtaining reliable information about cases of fraud rather than as an indication that it doesn’t exist.  The voter watchdog group Project Veritas created a stir in the summer of 2012 when it released a video[1] showing the ease with which a 22 year-old investigative reporter was able to obtain the ballot of Attorney General Eric Holder (and could have voted had he wanted to).  Some have tried to dismiss the voter fraud stings carried out by Project Veritas as mere stunts or practical jokes, thereby demonstrating a shocking level of indifference to the reality of voter fraud or a cynical level of calculation as to who most benefits from it.

In fact, those most likely to minimize the problem and incidence of electoral fraud are the opponents of Voter ID laws (in the rare case of a law actually meaning exactly what it says, these are laws governing the strictness and levels of identification that must be shown by a prospective voter).  Proponents of such laws feel that requiring an ID check before voting (and depending on the law, this could be less onerous than what one might have to go through to pick up a prescription or even buy a beer in a restaurant) is a small and necessary measure to protect the integrity of our democracy.  Opponents of Voter ID laws employ the politically-charged claim that such laws are used to disenfranchise the poor and minorities.  However, as a recent report from the National Center for Public Policy Research explains,[2] those are the same groups (economically disadvantaged and minorities) that are most likely to have their vote stolen (and who would then arguably benefit the most from stricter Voter ID laws).  In addition, Voter ID laws serve as a protection against multiple votes, voting under fictional names, out-of-state voting, non-citizen voting, or voting in the wrong precinct.  As the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out in upholding the validity of Voter ID laws, one must consider “extreme difficulty of apprehending a voter impersonator” without such a law.  This is especially true when one considers the chaos (and attendant opportunity for widespread fraud) found in our voter registration rolls.

Registration Fraud

To say that the country’s voter registration rolls are in disarray would be a gross understatement.  A recent study by the Pew Center on the States found that as many as one in eight voter registrations were inaccurate, out-of-date, or duplicates.  Approximately 2.8 million people were registered in more than one state, and as many as 1.8 million registered voters are dead.  The Pew report argues for modernization of our registration system and better communication between states.  In the meantime, the chaos and inaccuracy of the current state of affairs simply provides more opportunities for electoral fraud at the point of registration.

The most notorious example voter registration fraud in recent years comes from the activities of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal “community organizing” group that was heavily involved in registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in the 2008 presidential election.  In May 2009, six ACORN employees in Pennsylvania pled guilty to 51 counts of forgery related to fraudulent registrations (the employees claimed they did so in order to reach a quota).  And in 2011, an ACORN employee in Nevada pled guilty to one count of felony compensation for registration of voters.  Political disputes over ACORN’s practices and motivations have obscured the ease and scope with which which the questionable or fraudulent registrations were obtained and their potential for damage to the integrity of the electoral system.

And fraud that can effect entire elections does start at the point of registration.  Consider the 2004 study by the New York Daily News that found that 46,000 people were registered to vote in both Florida and New York City and that between 400 and 1000 of them had voted in both places in the same election.  Consider also that the 2000 Presidential election was decided in Florida by a mere 537 votes, and you’ll agree that every fraudulent vote counts.

Absentee Ballot Fraud

If you were to ask someone who studies voter fraud what the best method was for committing it, that person would probably point you toward absentee ballots.  It is the ultimate in “no questions asked” voting, and even those groups that seek to minimize the incidence of voter fraud will concede that it is the area of greatest concern.  (A study by News21 found that absentee ballot fraud accounted for 23.7% of the cases of election fraud since 2000, followed by registration fraud at 19.3%.)  According to the United States Election Assistance Commission, 15.6% of voters (about 14.2 million people) voted by absentee ballot in the 2010 midterm elections.  And though there are systems in place meant to verify absentee ballots, the opportunity for fraud is considerable.

In recent years, absentee ballot fraud cases have come to light in at least ten states.  In Troy, New York, eight Democratic politicians and political operatives were indicted for a scheme to forge and vote absentee ballots in an effort to throw the 2009 Troy primary election.  In West Virginia, a candidate admitted to filling out and voting multiple absentee ballots for himself, while other allegations in absentee ballot fraud from around the country include everything casting multiple fraudulent votes to buying and selling them or even ripping up and throwing away ballots for a rival candidate.  In September 2012, election watchdog group True the Vote submitted 31 cases of suspected absentee ballot fraud to authorities based on evidence of votes cast in 2 states during the same election cycle.

Voter Fraud in Hawaii

And, unfortunately, Hawaii is not exempt from the trends.  Hawaii County elections clerk Jamae Kawauchi recently came under fire after her office discovered several instances of people voting twice and at least 50 people were registered more than once during the 2010 election.  On the bright side, Hawaii is above average in attempting to ensure voting integrity, with a Voter ID law (that, unfortunately, fails to specify consequences for failure to produce ID) and a statutory limitations on the percentage of poll workers that can be from a particular political party.  Electronic voting systems must provide a verifiable paper audit trail, and central voting centers help poll workers resolve voter registration issues at the point of voting.

However, as the incident on the Big Island demonstrates, such safeguards are not foolproof, and experience has demonstrated that successful voter fraud is nearly impossible to catch.  With electoral fraud having the potential to profoundly affect the political, cultural and economic future of our state—remember, after all, that it is not only about swaying the big national elections, but everything from ballot measures to county councils—we have the responsibility to do what we can to stop it.

What You Can Do

  • Support Voter ID laws, both locally and nationally.  In Hawaii, this includes closing up loopholes regarding consequences for failure to show photo ID.
  • Support efforts to clean up voter registration procedures and remove duplicate and defunct names from voter registration rolls.
  • Support efforts to clean up absentee ballot procedures and verification.
  • Volunteer to be a poll watcher on election day.
  • Volunteer to review last-minute registrations. Submitting an overwhelming number of registrations as close to the election as possible is a ploy to register people who don’t qualify or don’t exist.
  • Volunteer with the state or local elections committee, whether it be in confirming registration/eligibility, verifying absentee ballots, etc.
  • In the polling place, be alert to the possibility that some there may not be eligible to vote.  If you know that someone is voting fraudulently, you may issue a challenge to his/her vote: Under state law, any registered voter (rightfully in the polling place on election day) may challenge the right of a person to be or to remain registered as a voter in any precinct (HRS §11-25) on the basis that:
      1. The voter is not the person he/she claims to be.
      2. The voter is not a resident and therefore not entitled to vote in that precinct.

The right to challenge safeguards the integrity of the election process by ensuring that only qualified individuals are allowed to vote.  Voters who are challenged retain a fundamental right to file an appeal.

  • Learn to identify signs of voter intimidation or other deceptive election practices.  These include:
    • Individuals using official seals or insignia to intimidate voters.
    • Flyers or other materials with bogus election rules, an incorrect election date, or other misinformation.
    • Deceptive online messages.  (And be sure to correct misinformation—accidental or not—on Facebook and other social media.)
    • Deceptive robocalls and similar efforts to spread misinformation.
    • Suspicious behavior from poll workers who appear to be favoring (or disfavoring) a candidate, party, or ballot measure.
    • If you see any of these signs, report them to State authorities (and document your complaints).  The phone number for the Hawaii State Office of Elections is (808) 453-VOTE(8683) and toll free for neighbor islands at 1-800-442-VOTE (8683)


[1] Video available on You Tube at http://youtu.be/P5p70YbRiPw.

[2] Horace Cooper, “Victims of Voter Fraud: Poor and Disadvantaged Most Likely to Have their Vote Stolen.” National Policy Analysis, August 2012.  Available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA635.html.