Arlen Specter, the veteran senator from Pennsylvania who died yesterday at age 82, often infuriated conservatives. He was the leading Republican against the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, he engaged in raw pork-barrel politics, and he was one of only three Senate Republicans to vote for President Obama’s stimulus bill.
But in Specter’s defense, he actually was a Democrat who only became a Republican by accident in 1965 at age 35 after his party refused to nominate him for district attorney of Philadelphia; and so he ran — successfully — on the Republican line. He ultimately returned to his roots in 2009 by switching back to the Democrats after it became clear that he would be defeated in a Republican primary by conservative Pat Toomey, who now holds his seat.
But there was one issue where Specter was a stalwart ally of conservatives, and a champion of good government. He strongly opposed voter fraud during his career. When I spoke with him last year he openly scoffed at liberal claims that there is no voter fraud. “They don’t see what they don’t want to see,” he told me. “I’m from Philadelphia. It’s been a way of life here.” He said that even though he was now a Democrat he stood by his 2007 vote in favor of requiring photo ID in all federal elections.
One reason why is that Specter may once have been a victim of voter fraud himself. In 1967, he ran for mayor as a reform Republican against a Democratic machine that Specter said was “highly suspect if not demonstrably corrupt.” His running mate as city controller was Tom Gola, a legendary basketball star. Their slogan was “We need these guys to watch those guys.” Specter ultimately lost by 10,000 votes out of over three-quarters of a million cast, and he strongly suspected voter fraud had a lot to do with his loss.
Chris Matthews, the liberal MSNBC host who hails from Pennsylvania, agrees that voter fraud is a Philly tradition. Last year, he explained a common scheme on his show: Someone calls to enquire whether you voted or are going to vote, and “then all of a sudden somebody does come and vote for you.” Matthews says it’s an old strategy in big-city politics in many places: “I know all about it in North Philly — it’s what went on, and I believe it still goes on.”
As a U.S. senator, Specter led the charge for a criminal investigation of a disputed state senate election in Philadelphia in 1993 after the Philadelphia Inquirer unearthed evidence that over 500 illegal absentee ballots were cast. The election was important because it determined which party would control the state senate. A federal judge ultimately threw out the results of the election and installed Republican Bruce Marks as the winner.
Many years later, Specter was appalled at the activities of the far-left group ACORN, after it was discovered they were submitting hundreds of thousands of fake voter registrations around the country. As ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he unsuccessfully urged that a hearing be held on the ACORN scandal. He was shot down by, among others, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer who claimed “fraud is not systematic and it doesn’t occur very much.”
Even after he switched parties in 2009, Specter still voted with a majority of the Senate to end all federal funding of ACORN after a series of videos by James O’Keefe exposed the group’s fraudulent nature. His Pennsylvania colleague, Democrat Bob Casey, voted against the defunding effort after arguing it was distracting the Senate from more important work. “We’ve got bigger priorities than this,” he told reporters at the time.
Arlen Specter was a man of many contradictions and highly flexible views. But when it came to voter fraud, he not only stood up for what was right but he made it a priority. “Every vote stolen cancels out that of someone else and attacks the heart of our democracy,” he told me. “That shouldn’t be a partisan issue but just one of basic integrity.”