Law & the Courts

When Election Officials Ignore Voter Fraud, We Need More Oversight

Poll workers distribute ballots in Somerville, Mass., in 2012 (Reuters photo: Jessica Rinaldi)
Those who pretend that fraud doesn’t exist are a threat to the integrity of our elections.

Opponents of measures to improve ballot integrity like to deny that voter fraud exists. “Voter fraud is very rare, [and] voter impersonation is nearly non-existent,” asserts a statement by NYU law school’s Brennan Center entitled “The Myth of Voter Fraud.” That claim, so common on the left, is based on an assumption that election officials are on the lookout for fraud and mistakes. But incidents in states from Virginia to Pennsylvania to New York show that too many election officials are ignoring or even covering up the systemic problems brought to their attention. One way not to find something is simply not to look.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, one out of eight American voter registrations is inaccurate, out-of-date, or a duplicate. Some 2.8 million people are registered in two or more states, and 1.8 million registered voters are dead.

Even though that’s a rich vein of potential mischief for fraudsters, the Obama administration hasn’t filed a single lawsuit in eight years demanding that counties clean up their voter rolls, as they are required to do by the federal “motor voter” law. I’ve spoken to three Justice Department lawyers who attended a meeting on Nov. 30, 2009, in which they claim then-deputy assistant attorney general Julie Fernandez said the DOJ would not be enforcing that provision of the motor voter law because it  ran counter to the law’s overall goal of “increasing turnout.” (Ms. Fernandez did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

J. Christian Adams, who previously worked in the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Section and attended the 2009 Fernandez meeting, now heads the Public Interest Law Foundation. He has forced several counties in states such as Mississippi and Texas to clean up their voter rolls. But in many other states, his efforts have run into outright obstructionism. He was able to get voter-registration records from eight of Virginia’s 133 cities and counties, and found 1046 illegal aliens who were illegally registered to vote. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, a number of those aliens had voted some 300 times. Their presence on the voter rolls was only discovered if, in renewing their driver’s licenses, they corrected their past false claims of citizenship.

Adams’s group also discovered systemic problems in Philadelphia, where 86 illegal aliens had their voter registrations canceled from 2013 to 2015, 40 of whom had voted in at least one election. Philadelphia’s voter rolls are so sloppily managed, according to the group’s report, that it’s hard for undocumented immigrants to have their names removed even when they ask, and officials make no attempt to ensure voters who are incarcerated for felonies get removed from the voter rolls.

Asked how ineligible voters could be registered in Philadelphia, a city elections official, who won’t identify himself, says, “I have no idea what they’re talking about. No, there aren’t,” before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Sometimes the reaction of city officials to revelations that they are presiding over a flawed system can become an effort to silence critics. In 2013, New York City’s Department of Investigations dispatched undercover agents to 63 polling places. The agents assumed the names of people who had died, moved out of town, or were sitting in jail. In 61 instances, or 97 percent of the time, they were allowed to vote, because no photo ID was required. (They cast only meaningless write-in votes so as not to affect the outcome of any contest.)

The DOI published a searing 70-page report accusing the city’s Board of Elections of incompetence, waste, nepotism, and lax protocols. But far from launching an internal probe, the Board approved a bipartisan resolution referring DOI investigators for prosecution. It also asked the state’s attorney general to determine whether DOI had violated the civil rights of voters who had moved or are felons, and it sent a letter of complaint to Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

While New York City’s reaction is an extreme case, election officials in other parts of the country too often resist addressing systemic problems when they come to light. Adams couldn’t find a single case where election officials in the jurisdictions he examined recommended any illegal non-citizen voters for prosecution. “There can be a real reluctance to have dirty laundry aired,” former Minnesota secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer tells me. But by actively thwarting legitimate efforts to improve election integrity and efficiency, officials will only undermine public confidence in the validity of the voting that is the cornerstone of our government.

— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.

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