We all learned a lot about voter fraud in the run-up to this election. Despite histrionic claims to the contrary (see: Donald Trump and his surrogates), the experts tell us that elections are not rigged and instances of fraudulent voting are rare. But what about fraud involving voter registration and voter petitions? Well, that is another story.
The week before the election, allegations of voter-registration fraud were raised in Delaware County, with the complaints centering on the activities of a Washington, D.C.-based group called FieldWorks, which conducted a voter registration drive for the Democrats in the area. The allegations were serious enough to prompt state police to visit multiple FieldWorks area offices and cart off records.
As of this writing, there is no proof of wrongdoing. FieldWorks issued a statement saying it had “zero tolerance for fraud,” while Republicans in Delco said the organization was trying to game the system by filing thousands of faulty (or fraudulent, if you prefer) voter registration forms.
To quote Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.
In the first decade of this century, a nonprofit leftist grassroots group called ACORN was famous – or, depending on your party affiliation, notorious – for its voter registration drives, many of them targeted to minority communities. ACORN was a group with national scope – in one election cycle, it claimed to have registered 1.3 million voters.
Included in that number were bad registrations – with phony names, false addresses, the wrong date of birth, etc. ACORN caused headaches for election officials because they would bundle their voter forms and drop them on the desks at election bureaus, often close to the registration deadline. In Philadelphia, election officials would moan every time ACORN showed up at their door, making them process thousands of voter forms in a matter of days – at the busiest time of year, natch. Inevitably, some of those phony registrations were entered into the official voting rolls.
There was never much concern among election professionals that this would unleash a wave of fraudulent voting. Since some of the voters were phony, it’s doubtful someone who filled out the form would show up at the polls. If they did, they would have to go through the process of identification as required by law. (In Pennsylvania, first-time voters are required to show a photo ID.)
ACORN’s problem wasn’t its mission, but its methodology. The organization hired part-time workers at an hourly rate and (though ACORN disputed this) gave them quotas to fill, with bonuses for those who exceeded their goals.
Let’s assume you are one of these hourly workers and you decide to station yourself with a clipboard on a busy street corner in Philadelphia to get people to register to vote. Under optimal conditions, you would only get 10 takers for every 100 people who passed by. Why? Because most Philadelphians are already registered. We have 1.2 million people over the age of 18 in the city – and 1.1 million, or 90 percent – are registered.
After standing on that corner for a few days with hardly any new registrations, what would you do?
If a person said they weren’t sure if they were registered, you might say: “Well, sign up anyway, just in case.”
And you would create a duplicate registration that would just have to be sorted out later.
Another thing some ACORN workers did was to sit down with a telephone book, copy names and addresses, and make up dates of birth and other required information. Some wouldn’t even bother with a phone book – they would just use their imaginations.
The result: the workers would meet their quotas, and the registrations would be handed in to the election bureau. Though ACORN said it checked all applications for accuracy, junk registrations couldn’t help but wind up in the system.
The ACORN effort had reverberations far beyond the streets, thanks mostly to President George W. Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove. Rove, often referred to as “Bush’s brain,” took voter-registration fraud and conflated it with voter fraud.
Republicans argued that those phony registrations weren’t the result of ACORN’s flawed methods; they were prelude to a massive outbreak of voter fraud. Rove pushed U.S. attorneys to prosecute voter registration cases; when some attorneys refused, they were removed from their positions by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for being insufficiently loyal to the Republican cause. (Gonzales himself was forced to resign in 2007 after Congress began to look into the firings.)
Virtually every anti-voter-fraud effort – particularly voter ID laws – dates from this era. The fact that ACORN targeted minority communities was the principal motivation. But, with its flawed method of collecting registrations, ACORN handed its enemies a cudgel they used with skill and vigor.
As an aside, ACORN dissolved in 2010, though not because of anything related to voting. A conservative documentarian filmed an ACORN employee giving a prostitute and her pimp advice on how to avoid taxes. It was a set-up – the two were actors – but funding for ACORN sank to zero.
Petition fraud is also fairly common – at least in Philadelphia. To get on the ballot, all candidates must file petitions signed by registered voters in their district – the number varies depending on the office. But, why go through all that work?
I’ve known of incidents where the candidates or their staff simply go down the voter rolls and fill in the names of voters on these petitions. In political circles, they are known as “kitchen table jobs.”
If a large number of signatures is required, campaigns will turn to part-timers who work for hourly wages, hand them a clipboard, and tell them to rustle up voters. That can cause grief because these workers often could care less if a signer is registered or even lives in the state.
There is a check against this kind of fraud. An opponent can challenge the petitions in court and seek to throw out enough invalid signatures to get the would-be candidate knocked off the ballot. They often succeed. In primary election season in Philadelphia, they even set up a special courtroom in the Election Bureau and assign a judge to hear the challenges that come in. Often there are dozens.
In the past, committee people would handle signing up voters and getting signatures for candidates’ petitions, but that practice has largely fallen by the wayside.
Now, we use the free-market system of hiring contractors to do the work – with predictable results. And the post-election question becomes, will we have to wait another four years to see substantial changes to address the issue, or will we be reading about FieldWorks as the most recent example of this type of election fraud?■