Lack of Oversight Leaves Massive Openings for Voter Fraud

Although fraud remains uncommon, a lack of cooperation between the states creates an opportunity even voter ID laws won’t fix.

Voters: Independents still hold key.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Aug. 13, 2014, 1:47 a.m.

Nearly 12 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans pack up and move every year. Most of them as­sume that by re­gis­ter­ing to vote in their new home cit­ies or states, their old re­cords will be in­val­id­ated. In many cases, they’re wrong. There is no uni­fied sys­tem in the United States alert­ing elec­tion of­fi­cials that former res­id­ents have moved away and plan to vote in someone else’s jur­is­dic­tion.

As a res­ult, mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans are re­gistered to vote in more than one place in any giv­en elec­tion, leav­ing open the pos­sib­il­ity of massive voter fraud that would not be hal­ted by voter-iden­ti­fic­a­tion laws that have swept through the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly in red states, in re­cent years.

With the op­tion of vot­ing by mail gain­ing steam, par­tic­u­larly in West­ern states, the pos­sib­il­ity of voters re­ceiv­ing mul­tiple bal­lots at their homes in any giv­en elec­tion is a fright­en­ing scen­ario for elec­tions of­fi­cials. Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton now vote en­tirely by mail, and in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, around half of voters in Ari­zona, Cali­for­nia, and Col­or­ado re­ques­ted mail bal­lots as well.

Enter the Elec­tron­ic Re­gis­tra­tion In­form­a­tion Cen­ter, or ERIC, a pro­ject cre­ated by the Pew Char­it­able Trusts that is now crunch­ing voter-re­gis­tra­tion data in 11 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia. The new sys­tem, which has been up and run­ning since 2012, al­lows states to share and com­pare data about their voters, help­ing to elim­in­ate those from the voter rolls who have either moved or died since they last voted.

Pew was alarmed to find in a 2011 study that about one in eight voter re­cords are out­dated. In co­oper­a­tion with IBM and elec­tions of­fi­cials from across the coun­try, the or­gan­iz­a­tion cre­ated ERIC to help solve the prob­lem. ERIC soft­ware com­pares mo­tor-vehicle re­cords, voter re­cords, So­cial Se­cur­ity in­form­a­tion, death re­cords, and change-of-ad­dress re­cords. Pew has since taken a back­seat, al­low­ing the states to handle the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the pro­gram them­selves. Us­ing the ERIC soft­ware cre­ated by IBM, states can now cre­ate lists of in­di­vidu­als the pro­gram flags as im­prop­erly re­gistered to vote either be­cause they have moved or have died. The states then con­tact those in­di­vidu­als to con­firm their status be­fore re­mov­ing them from the rolls.

In just the first sev­en states that joined ERIC’s pi­lot pro­gram in 2012 — Col­or­ado, Delaware, Mary­land, Nevada, Utah, Vir­gin­ia, and Wash­ing­ton — the soft­ware found 60,000 people who had died but were still re­gistered to vote. Ad­di­tion­ally, ERIC dis­covered an astound­ing 1.5 mil­lion voters had moved from one part of a state to an­oth­er with the state’s elec­tions de­part­ment be­ing none the wiser.

“You’ve got a situ­ation where ba­sic­ally mo­tor vehicles in these states had an up-to-date ad­dress … but that in­form­a­tion nev­er made it to the elec­tions de­part­ment,” said Dav­id Beck­er, the dir­ect­or of Pew’s Elec­tions Ini­ti­at­ives.

ERIC also found 250,000 people who had moved from one of the par­ti­cip­at­ing sev­en states to an­oth­er. And these fig­ures don’t ac­count for in­di­vidu­als who moved to states not tracked by ERIC, like Cali­for­nia, New York or Texas. “You can just ima­gine what these num­bers would look like if you in­cluded some large states,” Beck­er said.

It is un­likely — but not im­possible — that pri­or to 2012, voters who moved from Vir­gin­ia to Mary­land, for ex­ample, took ad­vant­age of their dual re­gis­tra­tion and crossed state lines to vote twice in per­son. But in places with all-mail or ma­jor­ity-mail bal­lot­ing, like Wash­ing­ton and Col­or­ado, it’s very likely that some voters re­ceived mul­tiple bal­lots in the mail, up­ping the chances of fraud­u­lent vot­ing.

Dav­id Am­mons, a spokes­man for the Wash­ing­ton sec­ret­ary of state, poin­ted out that when in­di­vidu­als send in their bal­lots they must sign a de­clar­a­tion con­firm­ing their iden­tity and as­sert­ing their voter status in that jur­is­dic­tion. Vot­ing mul­tiple times, lan­guage on the bal­lot warns, is a felony that in­cludes a max­im­um pen­alty of five years in pris­on and a $10,000 fine.

But that won’t de­ter every­one, Am­mons ad­mit­ted. “It def­in­itely is something that we are con­stantly watch­ing for,” Am­mons said.

Still, des­pite the lack of safe­guards to pre­vent mul­tiple voter re­gis­tra­tions across the coun­try, the ac­tu­al in­cid­ence of voter fraud is ex­tremely low. A five-year in­vest­ig­a­tion by the Justice De­part­ment dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion found just 120 cases of fraud it deemed worth tak­ing to court, and many of them ap­peared to be ac­ci­dent­al rather than ma­li­cious cases of im­prop­er vot­ing. Loy­ola Uni­versity law pro­fess­or Justin Levitt, who stud­ies voter fraud, wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post earli­er this month that he’s found just 31 cred­ible cases of fraud com­mit­ted in the United States since 2000; that’s out of more than 1 bil­lion bal­lots cast.

In one highly pub­li­cized case earli­er this year, Robert Mon­roe, a sup­port­er of Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, was charged with 13 counts of voter fraud after he cast mul­tiple bal­lots in sev­er­al cit­ies in two states as him­self, as well as fam­ily mem­bers. As Levitt noted, it’s un­likely that any of Mon­roe’s crimes would have been pre­ven­ted by stronger voter ID laws. But it ap­pears that at least some of the al­leg­a­tions would have been pre­ven­ted by a com­par­at­ive re­cords sys­tem, like ERIC.

Beck­er, of Pew, also noted that the in­cid­ence of voter fraud na­tion­ally is re­l­at­ively low. But, he ad­ded: “No one even wants the per­cep­tion of fraud out there, or the pos­sib­il­ity of fraud out there…. Just the fact that there are bal­lots out there that can’t be con­nec­ted to a spe­cif­ic eli­gible state voter can be a prob­lem.”

And the prob­lems go bey­ond is­sues of ac­tu­al fraud. As Beck­er notes, im­prop­er voter re­gis­tra­tion can wreak all kinds of hav­oc. “It means you’re send­ing mail to the wrong place. You’re draw­ing pre­cincts think­ing a voter’s there, when they’re not,” he said. “Voters aren’t get­ting in­form­a­tion on what polling place to go to, so they go to the wrong one which can cause lines [and] pro­vi­sion­al bal­lots can end up be­ing cast. Voters who vote by mail aren’t get­ting their bal­lots or bal­lots are go­ing to the wrong place.”

ERIC has had oth­er side be­ne­fits. In 2012, states used the pro­gram to help identi­fy po­ten­tially eli­gible voters and get­ting them re­gistered on­line long be­fore Elec­tion Day. Voters tend to re­gister in the weeks im­me­di­ately be­fore a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, leav­ing of­fi­cials with a short time peri­od to get all of them in the rolls. Be­fore the pro­gram came along, elec­tions of­fi­cials entered pa­per re­gis­tra­tions by hand in­to com­puters, which lead to nu­mer­ous entry er­rors. Re­gis­ter­ing some of those voters early and on­line through ERIC has saved time and money for par­ti­cip­at­ing states.

Since 2012, an­oth­er four states — Con­necti­c­ut, Louisi­ana, Min­nesota, and Ore­gon — and the Dis­trict of Columbia have signed up for ERIC. And, Pew says, many more are in the pro­cess of join­ing the pro­gram. Pew em­ploy­ees are hope­ful that by 2015, they’ll have even more state mem­bers shar­ing their voter-re­gis­tra­tion data.

But Beck­er ac­know­ledges that there is some nat­ur­al re­luct­ance to join­ing a sys­tem like ERIC. The United States has “a long his­tory of loc­ally and state-run elec­tions. We as a so­ci­ety have de­cided that we prefer de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion of elec­tions,” he said. And giv­en the amount of data that’s shared between the states through ERIC, pri­vacy is­sues also re­main a con­cern, though Pew and IBM in­sist that the pro­gram uses “highly se­cure serv­ers.”

The Pres­id­en­tial Com­mis­sion on Elec­tions Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which was formed in 2013 to help stream­line the mod­ern elec­tions pro­cess, re­com­men­ded earli­er this year that every state join up with ERIC. The com­mis­sion is co­chaired by Robert Bauer and Ben­jamin Gins­berg — who served as coun­sels for the Obama and Rom­ney cam­paigns in 2012, re­spect­ively — and their opin­ions are help­ing the pro­cess along, Beck­er said.

“It’s one of these re­forms that I think is gain­ing trac­tion,” he said. “I think more and more states will see that this is a tool that they can’t af­ford not to use. Es­pe­cially as big states start join­ing there’s go­ing to be tre­mend­ous value” in ERIC’s data.

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