Magazine | October 29, 2012, Issue

Block the Vote

Absentee ballots are an invitation to fraud

Just a few days before Florida’s October deadline for registering to vote in the 2012 presidential election, authorities in Tallahassee confirmed that the state’s Democratic party and two of its key allies — the New Majority Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza/Democracia USA — were the subject of a criminal investigation into fraudulent voter registrations. In one of life’s little ironies, the New Majority Education Fund has reconstituted itself as the National Open Ballot Project, with an apparently expansive interpretation of the word “open.”

The news from Florida includes the worst kind of bipartisanship: Earlier in the same week, a contractor hired by Florida Republicans found itself the subject of a criminal investigation, also related to allegations of fraudulent voter registrations. In Florida, that’s a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. If there are convictions in these cases, the guilty should do every day of those five years.

This is depressingly familiar stuff. Dozens of ACORN employees were convicted of crimes related to a widespread vote-fraud scheme in Nevada and Washington State, and our friends John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky have argued persuasively that Al Franken sits in the Senate as the result of ballots cast illegally by felons. In 2004, a CBS affiliate in the Philadelphia suburbs filmed campaign workers sauntering out of a prison with boxes of absentee ballots as a member of Congress stood by dumbstruck at the audacity of their lawbreaking. It is illegal for incarcerated felons to vote in Pennsylvania, and the third-party handling of absentee ballots is illegal as well, but nobody was ever able to document what happened to those votes, and nobody was punished. Prior to that event, Governor Ed Rendell had sent a nine-page memo to Pennsylvania’s wardens demanding that they make it easier for prisoners eligible to vote to do so, but the authorities apparently made no effort at all to distinguish eligible voters from ineligible ones. Meanwhile, the illegal practice of vote-buying remains distressingly common, and not just in the big Democratic cities where “walking-around money” lubricates the process. Earlier this year, the U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky announced an investigation into a cocaine-fueled vote-fraud ring comprising “very extensive, organized criminal activity, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in many cases that involves drug money.”

Election-rigging powered by cocaine. Meanwhile, reformers are having a hard time getting states to take casting a vote as seriously as they take buying a bottle of pinot noir.

Voter-identification laws are a very fine thing and worth continuing to fight for in spite of the recent legal setbacks in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Texas. But their critics are right about one thing: They will not do much to inhibit the most serious kinds of voting fraud, which involve either official misconduct or absentee ballots (or both). Voter-ID laws are a good beginning, but only that. Restoring the integrity of the ballot box will necessitate serious restrictions on mail-in ballots and other fraud-prone forms of voting — and putting a few political malefactors in jail would be a welcome development as well.

We should prepare for the election-reform debate by first ridding ourselves of the superstition that more people voting means a healthier body politic. It doesn’t. When voting requires at least a certain minimum of effort — taking the time to register oneself and show up at the poll on Election Day with a driver’s license in hand — then the self-selecting group of voters is almost by definition marginally more motivated than are the voters who are registered automatically and sent unsolicited ballots in the mail. “Motivated” does not equal “informed” or “responsible,” but there is, unfortunately, no way to screen for those qualities, since raising the voting age to 35 or reinstituting property requirements seems to have been off the table for a century or so.

The sacramentalization of the act of voting represents the worst of the democratic impulse and contributes to the ongoing conversion of our republican institutions into so many tribunes of the plebs. The recent revival of conservative distaste for the 17th Amendment is encouraging as a political indicator if quixotic as an action item.

#page#When we accept that it is perfectly fine (and maybe more than that) if fewer people vote, and that making it easier to vote is not necessarily in the national interest, then it is much easier to proceed to the next step of electoral reform: severely restricting the use of the absentee ballot, which should be limited to military and diplomatic personnel stationed abroad, and possibly to persons with documented disabilities that make in-person voting impossible. And that’s it. If that means that some of the 3 million or so American civilians who live abroad either do not vote or have to make a special trip home to do so, so be it. The world will not end if a few American bank-monkeys doing two years in Zurich miss out on an election. Limiting the absentee ballot would mean, among other things, amending or repealing the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009. Put it on the list of Obama-era policies targeted for extinction.

The problem with absentee ballots is that it is difficult to know who is receiving them and filling them out, and the politicians in charge of the process have little or no incentive to ensure its integrity but a very powerful incentive to undermine it. That is what prosecutors say happened in 2009 in Troy, N.Y., when eight Democrats conspired to steal a primary through the use of fraudulent absentee ballots. Normally, one would hope to depend upon the commissioner of elections to prevent this sort of fraud, but in this case the commissioner was charged as part of the conspiracy. (Four of the eight have been convicted, one acquitted, and three remain on trial.) A Democratic operative employed by the local housing authority nonchalantly described the fraud as “a normal political tactic.” It certainly appears to be that. “It occurs on both sides of the aisle,” he told Fox News. “The people who are targeted live in low-income housing, and there is a sense that they are a lot less likely to ask any questions.” If you still doubt that Democratic welfare-statism is in no small part a cynical and contemptuous strategy of treating the poor as vote banks, read the coverage of the Troy trial.

Or the Philadelphia newspapers. In 1993, control of the Pennsylvania state senate shifted from Republicans to Democrats with the election of Bill Stinson — and shifted back to Republicans after it was discovered that the Democrats had won the seat through an election-rigging scheme based on absentee ballots. Democrats paid campaigners in north Philadelphia $1 a vote for collecting absentee ballots, with the predictable results. Ed Rendell, moral giant that he is, said at the time: “I don’t think it’s anything that’s immoral or grievous, but it clearly violates the election code.” Stinson eventually lost his seat and the Democrats lost their majority — but when it comes to electoral corruption, there really is no substitute for putting politicians in prison.

The problem of absentee ballots is hardly limited to backwater knuckleheads in Troy and big-city machines like Philadelphia’s. In the nine states that will decide the 2012 presidential election, about one-fifth of the votes are expected to come in the form of absentee ballots. How many of those votes will be fraudulent nobody knows, but given the number of phony-registration cases and absentee-ballot abuses in other elections, it is very likely that a non-trivial number of those ballots will be cast on behalf of people who never saw them or who do not exist. A little bit of progress has been made in Ohio, where Democratic-leaning urban counties had been in the habit of mailing out unsolicited absentee ballots, which is practically an invitation to fraud. House Bill 194 put an end to that practice, but the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, caught hell anyway for directing counties not to do what the law says they may not do. (The law is being challenged.) The eruption of registration-fraud cases in Florida does not bode well for the reliability of the count in that critical swing state.

In addition to the problem of fraud with malice aforethought, absentee ballots also are more subject to challenges in the vote-counting room, which is of course a politically charged process. Absentee ballots are rejected at double the rate of conventional ballots, often on the basis of handwriting analysis by people with no training in that art. These are not confidence-inspiring facts.

Beyond the restriction of the absentee ballot and the strengthening of voter-identification laws, other avenues for reform should include eliminating the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 — the so-called Motor Voter law, which registers voters when they apply for driver’s licenses, welfare, or other government benefits — along with the Help America Vote Act adopted in the wake of the chaotic 2000 presidential election, which partly federalizes the election process, which should be managed exclusively by the states.

Elections should be to the greatest extent possible insulated both from the Washington incumbency-protection racket and from the entitlement state. We simply do not want Americans registered to vote by the same person registering them for food stamps: For decency’s sake, the act of participating in government should at least be spatially removed from the act of making oneself dependent upon it. We may not be able to resurrect shame, but inconvenience will do in a pinch.

And if we end up with fewer voters, we may yet end up with better elections.

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