Ever since Republican leaders alleged widespread “impersonation” fraud, in which someone casts a ballot using another person's name, they've launched investigations to prove it.
But critics say the results have been underwhelming.
Among them is Lorraine C. Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University's Camden, N.J., campus, and a senior fellow at Demos, a liberal advocacy group in New York that opposes laws requiring people to produce a photo ID at polling places.
Minnite tracked every case during the past decade in which politicians, almost invariably Republicans, alleged voter fraud. “I spent a number of years engaged in painstaking research, aggregating and sifting all the evidence I could find,” she wrote in a book presenting the results. “Voter fraud is rare,” she concluded. And the notion that it's pervasive is a “politically constructed myth.”
Yet, charges of ballot fraud have persisted. In January 2011, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican, announced that more than 6,000 noncitizens might have registered to vote in the state. “Fact is, my office has every reason to believe that thousands of noncitizens are registered to vote in Colorado,” he said three months later.
His office released a six-page report that wound up stating that the number of voting noncitizens might amount to more than 4,000 — or to as few as 106. The report recounted a process of comparing names on driver's licenses granted to foreigners residing legally in the United States with names on the state's registered-voter list.
The comparison yielded 11,805 people who seemed to be on both lists. “This number does not prove that all 11,805 noncitizens were registered improperly,” the report said. It then narrowed the field further to 4,947 of those people said to have voted in the 2010 general election, then to 106 people said to have presented noncitizen documents in obtaining driver's license and to have registered to vote “on or before they applied for a licensing noncitizenship document.”
One source of uncertainty, the report acknowledged, is that the department didn't know if someone who obtained a license as a foreign national later became a U.S. citizen.
The report said Gessler's department “is virtually certain” that the 106 noncitizens are illegally registered to vote, along with an unknown number of the remaining 11,699. “But it cannot accurately determine the number of noncitizens improperly registered to vote,” the report concluded.
The uncertainties appear to go even deeper. An analyst at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a voting-rights advocacy group at New York University School of Law, found that Gessler's report is “utterly silent” on the method used to determine that the approximately 4,000-plus foreigners had voted in 2010.
“Since 2006, the same time period Gessler used to identify noncitizens, 32,140 individuals became citizens in Colorado,” Keesha Gaskins of the Brennan Center wrote, citing immigration data from the Department of Homeland Security. “It is certainly reasonable to assume that some, if not many, of the over 4,000 individuals who the report alleged were noncitizens when they voted in 2010 were, in fact, citizens at the time of the election.”
In New Mexico, Republican Secretary of State Dianna Duran told state legislators last year that 117 noncitizens had registered to vote and that an unknown number had voted. In November, after checking voter registration records, Duran's office reported that nine registrants had identified themselves using foreign documents and might have voted. Another 10 had done so as well — but might have become citizens afterward.
The recent Colorado and New Mexico episodes match results elsewhere during the approximately 10 years that Republicans have insisted that U.S. elections are riddled with fraud.
Political scientist Lorraine C. Minnite, of Rutgers University, says widespread voter fraud is a “politically constructed myth.” www.demos.org
While Minnite, in her lengthy study, found no evidence of an epidemic of voter fraud, she did find instances in which the registration and election process was not administered well.
For example, she wrote, the election for Washington state governor in 2004 was marked by major allegations of fraud, made largely by Republicans, before and after Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared the winner. And a state court concluded in 2005 that 1,678 illegal votes had been cast. Among them were 1,401 votes cast by people with felony convictions who hadn't regained the right to vote. Another 19 were cast in the names of dead people and six by people who had voted twice. In addition, 175 provisional ballots were filed by people whose eligibility to vote couldn't be determined; another 77 ballots exceeded the number of voters.
The Washington state judge in the case concluded that bad administration, not fraud, was the reason for the illegal votes. “Neither the act of fraud nor the causation arising there from were proved,” he said.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, writing an opinion upholding Indiana's photo-ID bill, cited different figures from the same Washington state election — 19 “ghost voters” who upon investigation were found to include one person who had committed in-person voting fraud.
The Washington state election took place during a period when officials of the George W. Bush administration were spurring U.S. attorneys throughout the country to investigate election fraud. In fact, one of nine U.S. attorneys — all administration appointees — whom the Bush administration fired in 2006 was the top federal prosecutor in Washington state. He said at the time that he was dismissed for insufficient zeal in investigating fraud in that gubernatorial election.
“They wanted me to go out and start arresting people,” John McKay of Seattle told Newsweek in 2007. He didn't, he said because there was “no evidence.”
A report by the Bush administration's Justice Department was “not able to conclude … whether complaints about McKay's handling of voter-fraud cases either did or did not contribute” to his firing.
Allegations that another U.S. attorney, David Iglesias of New Mexico, was dismissed in part because he was seen as inattentive to voter fraud did not hold up under reinvestigation by the Obama administration. “There … was insufficient evidence that anyone in the [Bush] White House or DOJ [Department of Justice] sought to influence Mr. Iglesias to bring a voter fraud or public corruption case,” an investigator concluded in 2010. (The reference to alleged public corruption was not election-related.)
Still, Iglesias had said in 2007 that the pressure to prosecute election fraud was unmistakable and intense. He said an Albuquerque lawyer — an officer of the now-defunct American Center for Voting Rights Legislative Fund, which pressed Republican demands for stricter voter identification — demanded more action from him. The lawyer was “obsessed” and “convinced there was massive voter fraud going on in this state, and I needed to do something to stop it,” Iglesias said.
— Peter Katel