Politics & Policy

Democracy Imperiled

America's election problems.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the introduction of John Fund’s new book, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, released today from Encounter Books.

Our nation may be on the brink of repeating the 2000 Florida election debacle, but this time in several states, with allegations of voter fraud, intimidation and manipulation of voting machines added to the generalized chaos that sent our last presidential contest into overtime. There is still time to reduce the chance of another electoral meltdown, both this year and in future years. But this will not happen unless we acknowledge that the United States has a haphazard, fraud-prone election system befitting an emerging Third World country rather than the world’s leading democracy.

#ad#With its hanging chads, butterfly ballots and Supreme Court intervention, the Florida fiasco compelled this country to confront an ugly reality: that we have been making do with what noted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has called “the modern world’s sloppiest electoral systems.” How sloppy? Lethally so. At least eight of the nineteen hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were actually able to register to vote in either Virginia or Florida while they made their deadly preparations for 9/11.

The 2000 recount was more than merely a national embarrassment; it left a lasting scar on the American electoral psyche. A recent Zogby poll found that 38 percent of Americans still regard the 2000 election outcome as questionable. Many Republicans believe that Democratic judges on the Florida Supreme Court tried to hand their state to Al Gore based on selective partisan recounts and the illegal votes of felons and aliens. Many Democrats feel that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court tilted toward Bush, and they refuse to accept his victory as valid. But this issue transcends “red state” vs. “blue state” partisan grievances. Many Americans are convinced that politicians can’t be trusted to play by the rules and will either commit fraud or intimidate voters at the slightest opportunity.

Indeed, the level of suspicion has grown so dramatically that it threatens to undermine our political system. Nearly 10 percent of Americans believe their votes are not counted accurately, and almost as many worry that this is the case, according to a July 2004 poll by John Zogby. A Rasmussen Research poll in June found that 44 percent of Americans were either very or somewhat worried that a Florida-style mess could happen again in 2004. This growing cynicism diminishes respect for the nation’s institutions and lowers voter participation. Only 11 percent of the 18- to 19-year-olds eligible to vote for the first time now bother to go to the polls. The United States ranks139th out of 163 democracies in the rate of voter participation. The more that voting is left to the zealous or self-interested few, the more we see harshly personal campaigns that dispense with any positive vision of our national future. “If this escalates, we’re in horrendous shape as a country,” says Curtis Gans, who runs the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “If election results are followed by lawsuits, appeals, fire and counterfire, many people who are already saying to hell with the process are going to exit.”

The 2000 election resulted in some modest reforms, such as the federal Help America Vote Act, but the implementation has been so slow. Only $670 million of the promised $3.9 billion in grants to upgrade technology, cull voter rolls and enhance training had been dispersed to the states as of May 2004. This means that the nation’s voting systems will be in no better shape this November than they were in 2000, when about 2 percent of all votes for president nationwide weren’t counted for one reason or another, the vast majority because of voter error or outdated machines.

America’s election problems go beyond the strapped budgets of many local election offices. More insidious are flawed voter rolls, voter ignorance, lackadaisical law enforcement and a shortage of trained volunteers. All this adds up to an open invitation for errors, miscounts or fraud.

Reform is easy to talk about, but difficult to bring about. Many of the suggested improvements, such as requiring voters to show ID at the polls, are bitterly opposed. For instance, Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, claims that “ballot security and preventing voter fraud are just code words for voter intimidation and suppression.” Even improved technology is controversial. This November, around fifty million Americans will be using electronic voting machines similar to ATM machines, and some computer scientists are alarmed by the possibility that hackers could change the software to cast multiple votes or do other kinds of mischief. Both Democratic senator Hillary Clinton and GOP representative Steve King of Iowa are backing separate pieces of legislation to require that machines issue paper receipts for voters to verify before casting their ballots. But the legislation hasn’t even had a hearing and only Nevada will have paper receipts in place by the fall 2004 election.

Confusion and claims of fraud are likely this time around, especially if the election is as close as it was in 2000. Can the nation take another Florida-style controversy?

Indeed, we may be on the way to turning Election Day into Election Month through a new legal quagmire: election by litigation. Every close race now carries with it the prospect of demands for recounts, lawsuits and seating challenges in Congress. “We’re waiting for the day that pols can just cut out the middleman and settle all elections in court,” jokes Chuck Todd, editor of the political tip sheet Hotline. Such gallows humor may be entirely appropriate given the predicament we face. The 2000 election may have marked a permanent change in how elections can be decided, much as the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork changed, apparently forever, the politics of judicial appointments. On April 19, 2004, John Kerry campaigned in Florida with Senator Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, and vowed–six months before a single ballot was cast, counted or disputed–that he was ready to take the 2004 election to court. “We are going to bring legal challenge to those districts that make it difficult for people to register. We’re going to bring challenge to those people that disenroll people,” he told a rally. “And we’re going to challenge any place in America where you cannot trace the vote and count the votes of Americans. Period!” Democrats plan to have over ten thousand lawyers on the ground in all states this November, ready for action if the election is close and they see a way to contest it. “If you think of election problems as akin to forest fires, the woods are no drier than they were in 2000, but many more people have matches,” says Doug Chapin of Electionline.org, an Internet clearinghouse of election news. If the trend toward litigation continues, winners in the future may have to hope not only that they win but that their margins are beyond “the margin of litigation.”

Some of the sloppiness that makes fraud and foul-ups in election counts possible seems to be built into the system by design. The “Motor Voter Law,” the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Clinton upon entering office, imposed fraud-friendly rules on the states by requiring driver’s license bureaus to register anyone applying for licenses, to offer mail-in registration with no identification needed, and to forbid government workers to challenge new registrants, while making it difficult to purge “deadwood” voters (those who have died or moved away). In 2001, the voter rolls in many American cities included more names than the U.S. Census listed as the total number of residents over age eighteen. Philadelphia’s voter rolls, for instance, have jumped 24 percent since 1995 at the same time that the city’s population has declined by 13 percent. CBS’s 60 Minutes created a stir in 1999 when it found people in California using mail-in forms to register fictitious people, or pets, and then obtaining absentee ballots in their names. By this means, for example, the illegal alien who assassinated the Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was registered to vote in San Pedro, California–twice.

Ironically, Mexico and many other countries have election systems that are far more secure than ours. To obtain voter credentials, the citizen must present a photo, write a signature and give a thumbprint. The voter card includes a picture with a hologram covering it, a magnetic strip and a serial number to guard against tampering. To cast a ballot, voters must present the card and be certified by a thumbprint scanner. This system was instrumental in allowing the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, the first opposition party candidate to be elected president in seventy years.

But in the United States, at a time of heightened security and mundane rules that require citizens to show ID to travel and even rent a video, only seventeen states require some form of documentation in order to vote. “Why should the important process of voting be the one exception to this rule?” asks Karen Saranita, a former fraud investigator for a Democratic state senator in California. Americans agree. A Rasmussen poll finds that 82 percent of Americans, including 75 percent of Democrats, believe that “people should be required to show a driver’s license or some other form of photo ID before they are allowed to vote.”

The reason for such support is that citizens instinctively realize that some people will be tempted to cut corners in the cutthroat world of politics. “Some of the world’s most clever people are attracted to politics, because that’s where the power is,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “So they’re always going to be one step ahead of the law.”

Election fraud, whether it’s phony voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, shady recounts or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing, can be found in every part of the United States, although it is probably spreading because of the ever-so-tight red state/blue state divisions that have polarized the country and created so many close elections lately. Although most fraud is found in urban areas, there are current scandals in rural South Dakota and Texas. In recent years, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Milwaukee have all had election-related scandals. Wisconsin officials convicted a New York heiress working for Al Gore of giving homeless people cigarettes if they rode in a van to the polls and voted. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for uncovering how “vote brokers” employed by candidate Xavier Suarez stole a mayoral election by tampering with 4,740 absentee ballots. Many were cast by homeless people who didn’t live in the city and were paid $10 apiece and shuttled to the elections office in vans. All of the absentee ballots were thrown out by a court four months later and Mr. Suarez’s opponent was installed as mayor.

But such interventions are rare, even when fraud is proven. In 1997, the House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to demand that the Justice Department prosecute Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a group that investigators for the House Administration Committee say registered hundreds of illegal voters in a razor-thin congressional race in Orange County, California. But federal immigration officials refused to cooperate with the probe, citing “privacy” concerns, and nothing was done beyond yanking a federal contract that paid Hermandad to conduct citizenship classes. The same year, a U.S. Senate probe into fraud in a Senate race in Louisiana found more than 1,500 cases in which two voters used the same Social Security number. But further investigations collapsed after Democratic senators walked off the probe, calling it unfair, and then Attorney General Janet Reno removed FBI agents from the case because the probe wasn’t “bipartisan.”

A note about partisanship: Since Democrats figure prominently in the vast majority of examples of election fraud described in Stealing Elections, some readers will jump to the conclusion that this is a one-sided attack on a single party. I do not believe Republicans are inherently more virtuous or honest than anyone else in politics, and I myself often vote Libertarian or independent. Voter fraud occurs in both Republican strongholds such as Kentucky hollows and Democratic bastions such as New Orleans. When Republicans operated political machines such as Philadelphia’s Meehan dynasty up until 1951 or the patronage mill pf Nassau County, New York, until the 1990s, they were fully capable of bending–and breaking–the rules. Earl Mazo, the journalist who exhaustively documented the election fraud in Richard Daley’s Chicago that may have handed Illinois to John F. Kennedy in the photo-finish 1960 election, says there was also “definitely fraud” in downstate Republican counties “but they didn’t have the votes to counterbalance Chicago.”

While they have not had the control of local and administrative offices necessary to tilt the rules improperly in their favor, Republicans have at times been guilty of intimidation tactics designed to discourage voting. In the 1980s, the Republican National Committee hired off-duty policemen to monitor polling places in New Jersey and Louisiana in the neighborhoods of minority voters, until the outcry forced them to sign a consent decree forswearing all such “ballot security” programs in the future.

In their book Dirty Little Secrets, Larry Sabato and co-author Glenn Simpson of the Wall Street Journal noted another factor in why Republican election fraud is less common. Republican base voters are middle-class and not easily induced to commit fraud, while “the pool of people who appear to be available and more vulnerable to an invitation to participate in vote fraud tend to lean Democratic.” Some liberal activists that Sabato and Simpson interviewed even partly justified fraudulent electoral behavior on the grounds that because the poor and dispossessed have so little political clout, “extraordinary measures (for example, stretching the absentee ballot or registration rules) are required to compensate.” Paul Herrison, director of the Center for American Politics at the University of Maryland, agrees that “most incidents of wide-scale voter fraud reportedly occur in inner cities, which are largely populated by minority groups.”

Democrats are far more skilled at encouraging poor people–who need money–to participate in shady vote-buying schemes. “I had no choice. I was hungry that day,” Thomas Felder told the Miami Herald in explaining why he illegally voted in a mayoral election. “You wanted the money, you were told who to vote for.” Sometimes it’s not just food that vote stealers are hungry for. A former Democratic congressman gave me this explanation of why voting irregularities more often crop up in his party’s back yard: “When many Republicans lose an election, they go back into what they call the private sector. When many Democrats lose an election, they lose power and money. They need to eat, and people will do an awful lot in order to eat.”

Investigations of voter fraud are inherently political; and because they often involve race, they are often not zealously pursued or prosecuted. Attorney General John Ashcroft did launch a Voter Integrity Program in 2002, which dramatically reduced both Republican allegations of fraud and Democratic complaints of suppressed minority votes. But many federal and state prosecutors remain leery of tackling fraud or intimidation. After extensive research, I can report that while voting irregularities are common, the number of people who have spent time in jail as a result of a conviction for voter fraud in the last dozen years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The U.S. attorney for northern Louisiana, Donald Washington, admits that “most of the time, we can’t do much of anything [about ballot-box improprieties] until the election is over. And the closer we get to the election, the less willing we are to get involved because of just the appearance of impropriety, just the appearance of the federal government somehow shading how this election ought to occur.” Several prosecutors told me they fear charges of racism or of a return to Jim Crow voter suppression tactics if they pursue touchy fraud cases. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights calls efforts to fight election fraud “a solution in search of a problem” and “a warmed-over plan for voter intimidation.”

But when voters are disfranchised by the counting of improperly cast ballots or outright fraud, their civil rights are violated just as surely as if they were prevented from voting. The integrity of the ballot box is just as important to the credibility of elections as access to it. Voting irregularities have a long pedigree in America, stretching back to the founding of the nation–though most people thought the “bad old days” had ended in 1948 after pistol-packing Texas sheriffs helped stuff Ballot Box 13, stealing a U.S. Senate seat and setting Lyndon Johnson on his road to the White House. Then came the 2004 primary election, when Representative Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat, charged that during a recount, a missing ballot box appeared in south Texas with enough votes to make his opponent the Democratic nominee by 58 votes.

Political bosses such as Richard Daley or George Wallace may have died, but they have successors. A one-party machine in Hawaii intimidates critics and journalists who question its vote harvesting among noncitizens. In 1998, a former Democratic congressman named Austin Murphy was convicted in Pennsylvania of absentee ballot fraud. The Democratic county supervisor who uncovered this scandal, Sean Cavanaugh, was so ostracized by his party that he re-registered as an independent.

Even after Florida 2000, the media tend to downplay or ignore stories of election incompetence, manipulation or theft. Allowing such abuses to vanish into an informational black hole in effect legitimates them. The refusal to insist on simple procedural changes, such as requiring a photo ID at the polls, combined with secure technology and more vigorous prosecutions accelerates our drift toward banana-republic elections.

In 2002, Miami election officials hired the Center for Democracy, which normally observes voting in places like Guatemala or Albania, to send twenty election monitors to south Florida. In 2004, there will be even more observers on the ground. Scrutinizing our own elections the way we have traditionally scrutinized voting in developing countries is, unfortunately, a step in the right direction. But before we can get the clearer laws and better protections we need to deal with fraud and voter mishaps, we have to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem we face.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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