Political Animal


October 07, 2012 9:50 AM Real Live Voter Fraud

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Jaded by relentless GOP vote suppression efforts directed towards phantom voter impersonators, it’s easy to forget that real fraud actually happens. Today Adam Liptak of the New York Times surveys some recent problems with absentee ballots, which now make up twenty percent of all votes.

Recently, he writes, mayoral elections in Indiana and Illinois have been invalidated because of mail ballot fraud. This year in Florida, one woman was found guilty of forging an elderly woman’s signature on one ballot, and possessing 31 absentee forms herself, while another was charged with fraud after requesting, then filing, absentee ballots on behalf of unsuspecting voters.

Liptak’s report follows a piece earlier this week by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post, which documented another form of fraud: good ol’ fashioned vote buying. Stories like this one, out of Kentucky, are typical:

“I was in town one day at a local convenience store, and someone asked me if I wanted to make a little money on that day,” Charles Russell of Jackson, Ky., testified about how he agreed to sell his vote in a local primary election in 2010. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’” Russell was eventually promised $45 and given a slip of paper with names.

Another case, in West Memphis, featured a candidate who successfully bought his way to the State House by wooing “absentee voters with cash, whiskey and vodka and at least one with a chicken dinner,” before pleading guilty and resigning his seat.

What do forged absentee ballots and vote-buying have in common? They occur more often than in-person impersonation (which is virtually non-existent) and are unaffected by voter ID laws. What’s more, states like Florida and Texas, which recently enacted legislation making it harder to vote in most respects (laws currently being challenged by the courts and the DOJ) feature no-excuse absentee voting, making it easier to commit fraud that way. As Liptak explains, that’s probably no coincidence: “Republicans are in fact more likely than Democrats to vote absentee. In the 2008 general election in Florida, 47 percent of absentee voters were Republicans and 36 percent were Democrats.” (Liptak adds: “Voters in nursing homes can be subjected to subtle pressure, outright intimidation or fraud.”)

The moral of Liptak and Fahrenthold’s stories is this: people just aren’t willing to commit a felony to vote in someone’s place—the only kind of fraud ID laws target. Rather, politicians themselves usually commit the fraud, by forging absentee ballots or paying people to vote for them. In addition, when states enact restrictive voter ID laws, it only encourages them to vote by mail, where errors and corruption are more rife.

No matter how implausible they are, however, suspicions of impersonation refuse to disappear. Even in true-blue Rhode Island, which passed a voter ID law last year, tales of voter impersonation were repeated so often, I found myself wondering if they were true. When I was reporting a piece on the state’s law for TNR, I encountered not a few testimonials about a certain vote buyer employed at the Providence water-supply board, who supposedly accepted thousands of dollars from local candidates to pay foot soldiers to vote on behalf of other people. His name, they tell me, is “El Macho.”

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.


  • kevo on October 07, 2012 10:03 AM:

    Save your money, don't go to the polls!

    Absentee balloting has for a long time been the voting of choice among Americans in a certain demography who would rather not show up, stand in line with strangers, and then use devises that have been touched by the multitudes. No, creepy doesn't begin to describe what seems to be an effort to skew elections through tactics unbecoming of any who call themselves democratic!

    Have a friend, rather conservative, boasts continually how she has family members hand over their Absentee ballots to her (she has 6 plus hers in hand) and then proceeds to vote as a "family bloc" for whomever she wants! No doubt a common practice around the nation! -Kevo

  • charlie don't surf on October 07, 2012 10:33 AM:

    There are also a few anti-fraud advantages to early voting. I am an election official, I work early voting, in the back office, and on election day. If someone requests a ballot, but a ballot has already been issued, it can alert us of a possible attempt at fraud. But I have never seen an actual case of fraud, it is always a situation that someone has forgotten they already sent in an absentee ballot.

    We also have bipartisan teams that go to nursing homes to help the elderly voters. This is a great assistance to those who are infirm and incapable of filling their own ballot, a bipartisan Dem/Rep team watches each other to confirm the votes are being filled out as the voter requested. These bipartisan teams are also available on election day.

    It is also the duty of voters to identify fraud. I have people come up to me and insist they know of voter fraud. I remind them, it's their civic duty to come forward and identify fraudulent voters. If they know of voter fraud and have done nothing to stop it, they are complicit in the fraud. That usually shuts them up, because they were making it up and they don't actually know of real frauds. But in any case, vote buying is risky because you can always go to the elections office and insist your vote was coerced, have the ballot withdrawn, and blow the whistle on the vote buyer.

  • Zorro on October 07, 2012 10:43 AM:

    But everyone knows: it's not voter fraud if it helps Republicans.


  • jjm on October 07, 2012 10:46 AM:

    How on earth does someone gain access to 31 absentee ballots. Where I live, the ballots come pr-printed with your name and address on them. How can they then be blank, or have the address left off? Or is California just much cleverer at sending these out than other places? We cannot GET an absentee ballot unless we are a registered voter, and we can only get one.

  • Gov't Mule on October 07, 2012 11:28 AM:

    I thought the NYT story was hackery. First the headline "Error and Fraud at issue as absentee voting rises." was completely misleading. The example Liptak cited was a school board election in Florida where a total of 62 votes out of 1322 where suspicious enough to investigate.

    Throughout the article Liptak tried to conflate vote by mail and absentee voting. He slipped in entire paragraphs about vote by mail while discussing absentee balloting.

    If anything, Liptak unwittingly revealed the huge fraud is that 20 percent of absentee ballots probably go uncounted and absentee ballots are also around 20 percent of the total votes cast nationwide.

  • c u n d gulag on October 07, 2012 11:28 AM:

    GOP POV:
    Only Democrats can commit voter fraud.

    Republicans as just excersizing their rights - their additional rights.

    And what do 'lefties' know about "rights" anyway?

  • Wapiti on October 07, 2012 12:05 PM:

    We have vote-by-mail here in WA state. I figure it will eventually collapse when congregations or other social groups figure they can have "voting parties" to encourage members to vote.

    "Oh Sally, who did you put in for mayor?"

  • Anonymous on October 07, 2012 12:15 PM:

    Here in Oregon we all vote by mail; we receive our ballots two weeks prior to the election. We are required to sign the envelope which has our name and address printed (in which we put our ballot); there is language above the signature line that can put one in legal jeopardy if you aren't the person to whom the ballot was issued/sign for someone else, etc. I was an observer for the 2008 general election and got a tour of our county's operation and was able to see first hand how signatures were compared to what was on file. A couple of years ago after one election my son received a letter from the county because he'd changed his signature significantly from when he'd first registered a couple of years prior; he had to re-do his registration with his new signature/prove he was the same person. So they really do check.

  • Anonymous on October 07, 2012 12:19 PM:

    Wapiti: doubtful. Groups can give out whatever info they want - just as Sierra Club and other environmental groups put out their own recommendations. Churches that have that much "mind control" over their members are going to convince them who to vote for whether or not they all bring their ballots to a church meeting or do them at home.

  • Anonymous on October 07, 2012 12:51 PM:

    >How on earth does someone gain access to 31 absentee ballots. Where I live, the ballots come pr-printed with your name and address on them.

    Where is this? That is actually illegal, since it links voters' personally identifiable information with the voted ballot. This is considered illegal because it would allow possibly corrupt election officials to report your vote to outsiders. This is the same reason why vote receipts aren't allowed.

    In my state, it is a felony to possess more than one ballot form. The ballots are blank, although absentee ballot return envelopes are pre-addressed. These exterior envelopes are stripped from the ballots, which are held inside "secrecy envelopes," to insure that nobody ever sees personal information and a vote at the same time. Votes not inside secrecy envelopes can be rejected. As an additional measure, voters who have died before the election but have already cast votes, will have their ballots pulled before counting.

  • jjm on October 07, 2012 1:08 PM:

    I misspoke. The envelope bearing your ballot is pre-printed with your name and address as a registered voter. The ballot of course is blank. Sorry.

    I was only wondering how people got a hold of multiple ballots, unless they knew that someone had died, the registrar had not been informed of the death, and they were waiting at the deceased person's mailbox to grab up the ballot. Anyone know?

  • zandru on October 07, 2012 1:31 PM:

    Oregon Vote-by-Mail

    Yes, everyone from Oregon raves constantly about their incredible mail-in system (no polls! no Election Day!) and how nobody has ever found any fraud - mind you, I doubt that anyone has looked very hard, either.

    On the other hand, how do you know whether your ballot was actually counted? Could it have been rejected because your sig didn't look right? Did the ballot maybe have stray marks on it and so it was rejected by the machine? You get no chance of a do-over in Oregon.

    Also - I think we're assuming that when we hear "absentee voting", what is meant is "absentee-by-mail". In New Mexico (and maybe elsewhere), all early voting prior to Election Day is considered "absentee", and is often referred to as "absentee-in-person." This is quite a different thing, and it's pretty much equivalent to Election Day voting - you get checked off on the county's voter rolls, your ballot is scanned on the spot, etc. A totally different animal than mailing in the old ballot, but one that could be factored in to these statistics, particularly if the reporter is careless or lazy.

  • exlibra on October 07, 2012 4:42 PM:

    In New Mexico (and maybe elsewhere), all early voting prior to Election Day is considered "absentee", and is often referred to as "absentee-in-person." -- zandru, @1:31 PM

    In Virginia, ditto. You can request an absentee ballot and mail it in, or you can come into the Registrar's office and vote in person (I think, through the Saturday before the election). Both types are counted as votes in the "absentee precinct".

  • tda on October 07, 2012 10:51 PM:

    Yes many Oregonians love the vote-by-mail. I find it a total disaster. I was at a brewpub a year ago , and at the next table a guy was saying that he was an apartment manager , and he just took all the ballots and voted them all his way. Of course the same thing will happen in small companies , the boss will tell the crew , bring in your ballots and we will fill them out for you
    [if you want to keep your job]

  • Anonymous on October 08, 2012 1:03 AM:

    tda: the apt manager may have taken the ballots, but he couldn't have signed the outer envelopes with the correct signature... the ballots wouldn't have been counted.

  • charlie don't surf on October 08, 2012 8:16 PM:

    >Both types are counted as votes in the "absentee precinct".

    I don't think that's possible. Many precincts have different ballots, since different precincts may have unique local issues like school board elections, referendums, etc. My county has a different ballot for each "township", I forget but I think there are like 42 townships. Every ballot has the township name printed on it, but other than that, some share the same ballot form since they're in the same school district or whatever. So your ballot would still have to be counted in your local township, it can't be designated to an arbitrary absentee precinct.

    My state holds absentee ballots until election day and adds them to the regular count. There are probably states that keep them separate in the count, but AFAIK none that count them until election day is over.

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