Analysis: Fraud and American elections

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Nov. 2, 2002 at 3:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Events in Florida on Election Day 2000 set into motion a series of actions culminating Tuesday in a White House ceremony where President George W. Bush signed the bi-partisan Help America Vote Act into law.

The new law, which has been criticized by both the political left and right and which Congress took almost two years to craft, is supposed to assist states in their efforts to modernize voting systems. It is hoped the reforms will avert another Florida.

There are doubters.

Ron Fauchaux, a political independent who edits Campaigns and Elections magazine, says that one of the major problems facing electoral reform efforts "is the trouble that exists getting people interested in it after the elections are over and the recounts are finished."

On the political side, it is hoped the new law will help voters feel more confident about the integrity of the electoral process and its machinery.

Politicians, legal experts and academics of all stripes have analyzed -- some might say over-analyzed -- what happened in Florida. They have been unable to develop a consensus about what went on and what the problems were, except to suggest they are broad and systemic.

"It is true that there is a major divide on the issue," Fauchaux said. "It is also possible that there has been too much emphasis on campaign finance issues and not enough on election procedure issues.

"When fraudulent votes are allowed, when voter registration rolls are sloppy and imprecise, when absentee ballots are open to fraud and negligence, these things can all have a greater impact on elections than a number of the campaign finance law changes that have been discussed and passed," said Fauchaux, who learned about politics in his home state of Louisiana.

The situation in 2000 and in the 2002 Florida Democratic primary "and the stories we are seeing about problems with absentee ballots, registration and election procedures in other parts of the country are finally bringing to light what should have been obvious: elections in a number of places in America are not conducted with the precision and competence that they warrant," Fauchaux said.

There is plenty of evidence to back up his assertion.

As the Detroit News reported within the past week, the city's voter rolls have become a cause for concern.

What the paper calls "a massive disagreement" has arisen over the number of voters actually registered legitimately in the city. According to officials in charge of Detroit's elections, the registration is 611,321. The total population of potential voters in Detroit is, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 655,651 -- meaning that 93 percent of the eligible voters have registered.

Compared with the national estimate of 70 percent, a figure of 93 percent number seems high, something not lost on some city officials.

The News has also reported on a memo it says was drafted by aides to the city's mayor for, but not delivered to, state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate.

The memo "claims the city's total of registered voters -- listed by election by officials as topping 600,000 -- is off by more than 150,000 people," the newspaper reported.

"We all understand that this is a false number," the paper quotes the memo saying, and that the actual number "will fall somewhere around 450,000 registered voters."

With more than 150,000 potential extra names on the rolls, the potential for mischief and mistakes is high.

Detroit is not the only place where problems exist.

After the 2000 elections, Republicans were up in arms over allegations that a Democrat volunteer in Wisconsin gave cigarettes to homeless men and women in exchange for their votes.

Also causing concern was a last minute judicial order permitting several polling places in heavily black areas of St. Louis to remain open to receive new voters several hours after the polls were scheduled to close.

A different state court halted the order, but not before the polls had stayed open beyond the official closing time.

Then there are the ballot boxes in Bernalillo County, N.M. that "went missing" for many hours on election night. The boxes, for the most part, came from heavily Republican precincts. Many party activists still harbor suspicions about the disappearance, although no one was ever charged nor were substantive allegations of fraud ever made.

Democrats also have their complaints, principally in the area of ballot access.

They repeatedly complained that Republican efforts to insure that only those who are supposed to be casting ballots do vote are in fact an effort to keep minorities from participating in the electoral process.

On Thursday former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., filed suit in the Miami-Dade, Fla., Circuit Court asking that Republican efforts to station more than 450 poll watchers in heavily-Democrat precincts be stopped.

The Democrats say the GOP intends to use these poll watchers to disrupt the elections to prevent people from voting.

Mark Braden, a Republican election attorney with the Washington office of Baker and Hostettler, said neither argument should surprise anyone.

Whenever the subject of ballot integrity comes up, "The first words out a Republican's mouth typically express their fear that people who are not qualified or dead have cast ballots.

"Democrats lead off with their concerns that people who should be able to vote are, some way or another, frightened away from the polling place or otherwise kept from voting," Braden said.

This is the principal legacy of the Florida recount. Activists in both political parties believe that the events of Election Day 2000 provide enough anecdotal evidence to support their claims.

Braden, who has litigated many election law cases at the federal, state and local level, said the underlying arguments on both sides have merit.

"Both those concerns are valid," Braden said, although he adds that, in his opinion, the issues raised about voter access "are now much more a political tool used by the Democrats to increase their vote.

"In the '50s and '60s, these concerns were certainly real and probably the most important issue in terms of the integrity of the process," Braden said.

"Now, I think the concerns about illegitimate votes being cast are more serious. Any post election recounts would, I believe, tend to validate that."

Part of the problem is how the "Battle of Tallahassee," as some political observers call it, unfolded. The presidential campaigns and their spokesmen, the television pundits and the interest groups who waved around allegations that in a number of cases remained unproven, contaminated the public evidence.

Both presidential campaigns decided to make Florida the lone battleground, leaving St. Louis, New Mexico, Wisconsin and other places where questions arose largely unexplored territory.

It will not be the same in 2002.

Already, allegations of fraudulent voter registrations from those living on American Indian reservations in South Dakota, aided by at least one activist on the payroll of state Democrats, has led to investigations by local, state and federal authorities.

Brendan Nyhan, writing in the liberal online publication Spinsanity, said he believes the South Dakota incidents are not as sensational as the Republicans would have people believe.

According to him, the incidents were isolated. "One man who was working for the United Sioux Tribes faces forgery charges for submitting phony voter registration cards, and a contractor working for the Democratic coordinated campaign is also under investigation for alleged discrepancies in voting documents she submitted.

"Approximately 400 questionable voting documents have been identified, but most appear to be linked to the two people in question," he wrote.

In Wisconsin, a prosecutor is investigating allegations that the Democrat candidate for governor, state Attorney General Jim Doyle, traded food and money to secure votes at a bingo party thrown for residents of a low-income hotel in Kenosha.

Some of the residents of the hotel have psychological or mental health issues while others are simply unemployed. State law prohibits giving people anything worth more than $1 to try to get them to vote or to keep them from voting.

The residents of the Dayton Hotel were given free pastries, coffee and soda and had the chance to win 75 cents in quarters as a bingo prize.

Besides allegations of fraud or intimidation, there are also issues relating to the law that can allow elections to be swayed one way or another, depending on which party has the power to enforce a particular interpretation of the law.

In one case, first reported Thursday, state election officials in Maryland invalidated a number of absentee ballot applications that Republicans voters had filled out and sent in.

The applications, which had been distributed by mail by the state GOP, were believed to be correct under the law. But state officials said the applications didn't conform to state regulations, making them unacceptable.

What has increased the suspicions among Maryland GOP'ers is that the election officials who work in the administration of outgoing Democrat Gov. Parris Glendening waited until the next-to-last and last day on which correct applications could be submitted before they mailed letters telling applicants that their applications had been rejected for technical reasons, according to The Washington Times.

These kind of legal issues "speak to the larger problem of having election procedures that are unconstitutional but remain untested until it is too late," Fauchaux said. "The writing of election law is not a perfect practice.

"It is often the result of compromise that intentionally produces vagueness and keeps voids in the law where perhaps they should not be. The rules sit on the books for years without being tested until one interpretation or another makes the difference in a close election," he said.

And, in some cases, reforms made by the politicians to correct problems from one election make things worse the next time.

Braden cited the expansion of so-called provisional ballots, allowing people whose names do not appear on the voter rolls but who claim they are registered, to cast a vote. Those ballots are set aside for later, when the claim of registration can be evaluated.

Some people, Braden said, are concerned that efforts to reform the system through provisional ballots "may swamp it and that there will be an effort to get these ballots counted before the people who cast them can be confirmed as qualified voters."

With a number of potentially close races on the Tuesday ballot, this is of particular concern. "We may find that these kinds of things will determine the control of the U.S. Senate for the next two years. The stakes are that high," Braden said.

In recognition of that, groups already are filing suit over ballot access and equal protection questions. Both parties have assembled legal teams ready to go out to states on a moment's notice on Nov. 5 to go into court over election problems.

Groups across the political spectrum -- from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the American Conservative Union -- have set up hotlines for members and activists to report problems in polling places.

On Nov. 6, 2002, Florida 2000 may, in hindsight, look like the proverbial drop of water into a very big bucket.

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