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Stop, Thief!
From the October 25, 2004, issue of National Review.


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Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, by John Fund (Encounter, 173 pp., $16.95)

In this important new book, the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund offers an ominous vision of future elections. “If you hated Florida in 2000,” he warns, “you may not have seen anything yet.”

You remember Florida: the ubiquitous “chads”–dimpled, pimpled, pregnant, hanging, and dangling; the butterfly ballots, overseas ballots, overvotes, undervotes, and spoiled votes. And then there were the lawsuits, in both state and federal courts. Fund holds out the very real possibility that a future close election–possibly as soon as next month–could set the stage for an explosion in election by litigation, with Florida-style challenges mounted in multiple states.

This potential future is in some measure a product of the not-so-distant past. If the Democratic convention is any indication, the myth that Al Gore won Florida is still a powerful one among Democrats–and one that will inevitably have consequences for how the parties view this election. For example, Vice President Gore, after offering a lame joke about spending nights recounting sheep, admonished the crowd to “make sure that this time every vote is counted.” Al Sharpton thundered that Florida was important because the vote is sacred, “soaked in the blood of martyrs.” Outside the convention, John Kerry has asserted that 1 million African-American votes were lost in 2000–an allegation for which he has yet to offer any proof. And the Democrats’ answer to Leni Riefenstahl, Michael Moore, argues that under every scenario, Gore would have won Florida absent the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, the myth of Gore’s Florida victory continues despite the fact that every recount conducted after the election determined that George W. Bush won the Florida vote. And yes, the allegations of systematic and racially based voter disenfranchisement continue despite strong evidence to the contrary–evidence that Fund chronicles in detail.

Firm in the conviction that they have been wronged, and buoyed by the quasi-precedent of the last presidential election, the Democrats, and with them the Republicans, are preparing for battle. I’m fairly sure that one of the unmentioned plagues of the apocalypse is hordes of lawyers, and I say this with the certainty that only a law-school graduate can muster. And so the Democratic National Committee’s promise “to deploy 10,000 lawyers across the country” for the election–like Kerry’s claim that he is organizing “SWAT teams” of election lawyers–is surely a sign of a coming electoral Armageddon, or at the very least a litigation arms race. The Republicans are mobilizing lawyers in response, and, of course, no good can come from so many opposing lawyers at or near the polls. We do not even need to wait until the elections to see the result of this buildup: Fund reports that liberal legal groups are already suing in states that require photo IDs at the polls, seeking to overturn that requirement on the dubious grounds that the provision discriminates against the poor and minorities.

Nonetheless, Fund’s book is less a portent of doom than a diagnosis of the ills that afflict our electoral system–a task he accomplishes by offering vivid examples of the failings of elections past. Fund has done his homework, and offers numerous eyewitness accounts of elections that were decided by fraud and corruption rather than by the will of the voters. He is forthright in stating that neither party has a monopoly on election fraud; but many of the larger, more recent scandals do in fact have their epicenters in the Democratic party.

In the course of these stories, we learn of some of the methods that ultimately facilitate election fraud. Number one on the list must certainly be absentee ballots, which figure in schemes involving dead “voters.” There are also schemes in which the unscrupulous forge or direct the votes of the elderly and mentally disabled, and even schemes involving pets registered to vote. While more liberal absentee provisions seem to be popular among Democratic-leaning advocacy groups, Fund argues that another effect of absentee ballots–allowing people to vote before Election Day–may have cost Gore the presidency. Because many absentee voters would have already cast their ballots prior to the eleventh-hour revelation about George W. Bush’s DUI, and before Gore’s last-minute push in his home state of Tennessee, these major events did not have the desired effect on a significant number of voters.

In his final chapter, Fund reviews a series of election reforms aimed at preventing corruption and litigation, from requiring photo identification to reining in the movement toward same-day voter registration. But reform will not come easy. Regulations aimed at curbing voter fraud–even those as innocuous as requiring an ID–are met with accusations of racial disparity and animus. As Fund illustrates, these same accusations have chilled prosecutors from investigating and prosecuting election crimes perpetrated in minority communities. Ironically, liberal activist groups oppose these regulations in the name of the sanctity of minority voting rights, and yet by doing so, they permit fraudulent votes to dilute genuine minority votes, thereby impairing the very rights they seek to protect.

Among the most important of Fund’s recommendations is the modest proposal that states develop clear and consistent rules for identifying what constitutes a vote, as well as timetables and procedures for contesting elections. Most of the election laws were not written with an eye toward the post-Bush v. Gore world: one in which lawyers will necessarily put more strain on the corners of the laws than the statutes were intended to bear. Election laws that give officials unmitigated discretion to ascertain the intent of the voter, and that are not supported by clear rules concerning how this task will be done, inevitably force election workers to practice nothing short of divination and, as we learned too well in 2000, may lead to protracted litigation. The key is to have a sufficiently clear set of rules before the election so that we don’t engage in countless metaphysical legal arguments after the election about how many corners of a chad must be detached before it becomes a vote.

The significance of these issues is not limited to the presidential election. There are many other razor-close races within the several states. Given that many of the problems that created Florida 2000 still exist, we would do well to heed Mr. Fund’s warning, and call for reform before we are faced with a nation of Floridas.

Mr. Alt is a fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. A contributor to National Review Online, he wrote the Florida Legal Watch column in 2000.



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