Votes from Beyond

Election fraud comes in many varieties

If ACORN drops voter registration forms on the courthouse lawn, will fraudulent votes sprout? Nutty names like Mickey Mouse never make the rolls, but what about less obvious forgeries? Fake names show up on forms mostly because some schmoe getting paid to register people thinks his day will be shorter or his paycheck fatter if he slips fake forms in with the real ones. He forgets about the fake forms the moment the check clears.

Like many of the real people that groups like ACORN register, fake people don't vote. People who register at festivals or in front of the grocery store rarely show up at the polls. Consider, for example, those who registered to vote in February 2007, in the wake of Black Wednesday. In a typical February, perhaps 1,000 voters will register, most having just turned 18 or just moved to Knox County. Last year almost 2,500 registered. Their first chance to vote in a county election came a year later and coincided with a presidential primary; one in four showed up. Only 151—6 percent—voted in August.

If voter outrage fades that quickly, imagine how fleeting the do-gooder urge is that gets someone to fill out a registration form at Sundown in the City. Getting real people to vote is a serious challenge, and it is even harder to get imaginary voters to the polls.

It is certainly possible to vote as a fake person, but it is also a felony. If you pull it off, they have your handwriting on the sign-in sheet and the registration form as evidence. Use a real address and your chances of getting caught go way up. There are convictions for this, but they don't amount to a dozen nationwide in a given year. Mostly it is felons who have lost their voting privilege who try to vote under an assumed name.

The dead do occasionally vote, but again this is rare. Most election commissions read the obituaries and purge voters, so the window of opportunity is small. In Memphis two years ago during a special election, a few dead people voted. It was a tight contest with allegations of fraud, but it turned out the voters had sent in absentee ballots before passing away. No one impersonated them. In a couple cases, next of kin admitted to mailing the ballots while going through the deceased person's possessions. Prosecutors opted not to pursue fraud charges. While the election was close, it was not close enough for a few absentee ballots from the great beyond to change the outcome.

If you are trying to sway an election, casting fake votes is a high-risk, low-yield proposition. If you hate democracy, there are better ways to cheat our voting system. Genuine cheats work not one vote at a time, but by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands. It is easier to obstruct your opponent's voters than to manufacture your own, and fooling or intimidating voters may not even be illegal.

Voter intimidation is common in minority communities, where voters might get phone calls or flyers designed to keep them from the polls. A little lie like "you have to pay your parking tickets before you can vote" can have more impact on an election than all the fresh graves in town. Republicans have been sending volunteers to minority polling places to challenge voters since William Rehnquist was in law school, and sometimes government officials join the game. Wealthy precincts get the most reliable voting machines and enough to keep lines short. Where the poor vote, the wait for a machine can last hours. This is the bread and butter of American election fraud. It is effective and almost impossible to prosecute.

Knox County is fortunate to have an election commission that does not play such games. Our November results should be reliable. As you hear about irregularities elsewhere, remember that not all frauds are created equal.