Election integrity back on the front burner
August 2, 2017
A tug of war between President Donald J. Trump and his political opponents has centered in recent months on election integrity and claims of voter fraud. According to a recent report from the conservative Heritage Foundation, voter fraud isn’t the myth that it’s claimed to be by liberal think tanks and the mainstream media.
Nine months after the presidential election, the political news continues to be dominated by the election itself. On one side is the ongoing probe of alleged Russian influence in the 2016 election. On the other is Trump’s insistence—unsubstantiated, so far—that massive fraud cooked the popular vote results in favor of Hillary Clinton.
The Russian controversy and voter fraud claims mirror a longstanding controversy over state voter identification laws. Democrats generally oppose these laws, saying that voter fraud is an invented issue.
Republicans generally support voter ID laws, claiming that enough fraud exists to warrant ID verification at polling places. The Heritage Foundation report lists 1,071 “proven instances” of voter fraud. This includes 938 criminal convictions for voter fraud, plus 43 civil penalties and 90 other types of outcomes.
A single Oklahoma case is highlighted in the report. It involved Darryl Cates, who was convicted for fraudulent use of absentee ballots for a 2009 school board election in Cave Springs (Adair County). In that election, 33 ballots were disputed based on signature discrepancies. All 33 ballots were notarized by Cates, who lived in Westville. Pleading no contest to the charges, Cates got a three-year deferred sentence.
Voter fraud can take many forms. The type in which Cates was involved is one of nine listed in the Heritage report. The most serious and most relevant to the voter ID issue are impersonation at the polls (marking a ballot in someone else’s name, sometimes a voter who has died), duplicate voting, and paying voters to choose a particular candidate or a position on a referendum question.
Election-related fraud isn’t a new topic. The stock joke about Chicago and Cook County (“Vote Early, Vote Often”) has its roots in allegations regarding the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy benefited from questionable voting patterns. His running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, was long dogged by allegations of voter fraud in the Rio Grande Valley in an earlier race for U.S. Senate.
“The United States has a long and unfortunate history of election fraud,” the Heritage Foundation report concludes. Its survey of fraud cases is represented as a sampling rather than an exhaustive list.
The Trump administration wants more than a sampling. On July 24, a federal judge ruled that Trump’s voting commission could legally continue seeking voter data from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The commission’s hunt for registration data unleashed a bipartisan furor from some state officials who claim the effort is a violation of privacy.
In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, last month, a city councilwoman voided her voter registration in protest of the commission’s efforts. She quickly re-registered when told council members must be registered voters.
One of the commission’s members is Hans von Spakovsky, who works for Heritage. He is a longtime proponent of strict voter ID laws. On the other hand, many claims about ID laws suppressing minority voting are based on reports from left-leaning organizations.
The commission wants “publicly available voter roll data.” Its request includes names, addresses, dates of birth, party registration, and partial Social Security numbers. Most of this information is already public information under state laws. Oklahoma officials plan to turn over all requested data, with the exception of partial Social Security numbers.
Nevertheless, the commission’s work has been castigated as being a prelude to laws that would suppress voter participation, particularly among racial minorities and the poor. This is the same claim frequently used against voter ID laws, which have had a mixed success in surviving legal challenges. In most cases, IDs can be obtained by anyone at no cost to the voter.
Oklahoma’s voter ID law is among the nation’s most lenient because no photo ID is required and voters who arrive at the polls without an identification card can still cast a “provisional” ballot.
In North Carolina’s tight 2016 governor’s race between Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper, Republicans filed complaints in more than 50 counties alleging ballots were cast by dead people, felons, and citizens who also voted in other states. Most of the complaints were dismissed. Cooper won the election.
Trump’s commission is expected to cost $500,000 over a two-year period for an effort that Democrats say is a witch hunt designed to suppress future voter turnout. No cost figure has been assigned to the congressional probe of alleged Russian interference.
Like the current controversy over the election commission’s efforts, arguments for and against voter ID laws tend to be more political than factual. Just as it’s problematic to prove that ID laws suppress participation (many factors—the weather prime among them—influence turnout), it’s difficult to substantiate cases of fraud that ID laws would circumvent.
As the Heritage Report documents, election fraud does exist. Whether it can substantially affect the results of an election is another matter. So also is the extent to which Russian interest in American politics can “rig” an election. Some Democrats who adamantly oppose ID laws on grounds that fraud isn’t a problem are often the most vocal in claiming Russia may have swung the election to Trump. Some Republicans who scoff at the Russian influence simultaneously claim voter ID laws are vital in maintaining the integrity of elections.
According to the Washington Post, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity is expected to copy the Interstate Crosscheck Program pioneered by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the Republican co-chairman of the commission (Vice President Mike Pence is the other co-chair). The program is designed to flag potential duplicate registration records related to voters who move from one state to another.
However, a multi-university team of researchers found that Crosscheck sends up false flags by tagging names of separate voters who appear to be the same person. The researchers concluded last year that there is no evidence of large-scale election fraud: “There continues to be simply no proof that U.S. elections are rigged.”
This conclusion was reached before the outpouring of claims regarding Russian interference. Again, the definition and extent of “fraud” or “meddling” is highly subjective.
While both sides agree that rigging (or fraud) may be happening, they can’t agree on the form it’s taking, its extent, or what to do about it. The sound and fury over Russia will likely continue for a time. Voter ID laws will continue to be debated and challenged in court. But the political component of these debates won’t easily give way to evidence-based data.
A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.