This article was also published on Politico.com.
Update 11-4-2008: Michaelson's response
For weeks Republican leaders have warned that widely reported problems with fake voter registrations could result in a flood of phony votes in pivotal states.
But Ronald Michaelson, a veteran election administrator and member of the McCain-Palin Honest and Open Election Committee, said in an interview that he could not name a single instance in which this had occurred.
âDo we have a documented instance of voting fraud that resulted from a phony registration form? No, I canât cite one, chapter and verse.â
The claims and counter-claims about fraudulent voting have emerged as a prominent issue in the 2008 campaign. Senator John McCain declared in the final presidential debate that ACORN -- the low-income advocacy group whose temporary staffers submitted thousands of faked applications -- âis now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.â
Republican elected officials and lawyers for state Republican parties have made similar claims in court and in statements to the press. So far, however, they have failed to provide significant supporting evidence.
A review of prosecutorsâ statements and documents filed by Republicans in the most serious new cases alleging voter fraud shows that none offer an example in which a fraudulently registered person managed to cast a valid vote. While several cases argue that such frauds are possible, none sketched a scenario for how massive numbers of people could fake registrations and then vote.
Asked for specifics about the dangers of fake registration, Ben Porritt, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, provided links to 13 news clips and a 2003 Missouri state auditorâs report. Eleven of the cases did not involve registration fraud. Two recounted how felons appeared to have cast illegal votes under their own names. The lone example of a forged registration leading to an illegitimate vote comes from TheWall Street Journalâs John Fund, who in April 2006 wrote that a community organizer had improperly registered a noncitizen, and then âsomeone eventually voted in [the noncitizenâs] name.â
Michaelson, who served for 27 years as executive director of the Illinois Board of Elections, said the sharp exchanges over registration fraud have undermined votersâ confidence in the electoral system.
âThe fact that so many of these illegal registrations are being made public raises a perception in the minds of people,ââ he said. âThatâs more of a general concern. You donât want to perpetuate the idea that our election process is lacking integrity.â
Asked whether his own party was responsible for fostering that perception, Michaelson said, âWell, it doesnât help. It has captured the attention of a lot of people.â Why do it, then? âMaybe itâs because thereâs nothing else to talk about,â he said.
Michaelson could not cite a single real example of how registration fraud has led to voting fraud. He said that an election-rigging scheme starting with phony application forms would not make much sense. Michaelson joined the McCain team when asked by its general counsel, Trevor Potter, whom he knew from their days working together at the Federal Election Commission.
Michaelson explained why the mere perception of widespread fraud can do public harm: âWhen reports are circulating in the media that this one group has turned in 5,000 applications and 2,000 of them are invalid, for the minimally informed voter, they say, âOh my gosh, whatâs happening to our process? Our process is lacking integrity.â It just plants seeds of doubt in the minds of people who donât understand the process very well.
âThatâs just not a very healthy atmosphere,â he said.
This week, the Ohio GOP launched an ad claiming âhundreds of thousands of new voter registrations are questionableâ and asking, âCould Ohioâs election be stolen?â
The implied link between registration and voting fraud has ranged beyond sound bites. It has driven Republicansâ invocation of legal power to scrutinize voters, demands for U.S. Justice Department intervention and court orders, and criminal investigations.
Fake Registrations an Unlikely Vehicle for Fraud
Numerous election experts, including Barnard College political scientist Lorraine Minnite and Justice Department veteran Gerald Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center, told ProPublica that fake registrations were an unlikely and unwieldy means of stealing an election.
Such a scheme would have to involve a substantial crew of fraudsters -- tens of thousands of people -- willing to risk the hefty prison sentences and fines if caught.
Michaelson agreed that the scenario is implausible. âWe have to distinguish between voter registration fraud and voter election fraud,â he said. He said that officials âinundated at the last minuteâ with piles of applications can let phony registrants âslip through the cracksâ and get on the voter rolls. But he could not name a type of voting fraud that would begin with the filing of false registrations.
The McCain campaign has asserted that phony registrations could facilitate fraud on absentee ballots. âVoter registration fraud can quickly turn into vote fraud -- especially in the case of absentee balloting and in states that do not require photo identification to vote,â the campaign wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey calling for a federal investigation. (The Associated Press, quoting two âsenior law enforcement officials,â recently reported that an inquiry is under way. Justice Department spokesperson Laura Sweeney told ProPublica she couldnât âconfirm or denyâ an investigation.)
Michaelson said absentee ballot scams have typically involved political operatives telling legitimately enrolled people for whom to vote.
Another member of McCainâs Honest and Open Election Committee, Harvard law professor and former U.S. solicitor general Charles Fried, stepped down last week after voting absentee for Obama-Biden. He said by e-mail that the campaignâs positions on voter fraud had not figured in his decision. âIt was all about Sarah Palin who is spectacularly unqualified,â Fried wrote. âMy decision had nothing at all to do with the justified outrage against the shenanigans of ACORN and the like.â
GOP Bid for Voter Lists Could Spawn Eligibility Challenges
Republicans have gone to court in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to obtain the names of new registrants. Their target often has been lists of names flagged when states compared their voter rolls to other data bases, such as motor vehicle registrations and Social Security. Those checks, required under a new federal law, have already been shown to be notoriously error-prone . Critics have said that disclosing the lists to a political party would enable mass eligibility challenges that could cause confusion at crowded polling sites.
The GOP sought a list of more than 20,000 new registrants in Wisconsin. Among those tagged as suspect were four of the six retired judges who make up the stateâs bipartisan election board. The Wisconsin Republican Partyâs brief warned that, if the presidential election is very close, âthe deciding votes may well be cast by ineligible voters registered illegally.â It alluded to âcriminal behaviorâ involving registrations, citing factual support consisting of three news accounts: one about a woman charged with submitting phony forms, one saying registration workers were being investigated for possible fraud, and one quoting a Republican spokesperson saying the hiring of former felons to collect voter applications -- even if not illegal -- âdoesnât smell right.â
The Wisconsin trial judge rejected the lawsuit on technical grounds, but noted that she was unpersuaded by the GOPâs mentions of âcriminal activity.â
Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, a Republican official who initiated the failed suit, announced Tuesday that he would deploy more than 50 state law enforcement agents and collaborate with local prosecutors to guard against fraud on Election Day. It was unclear what the agents might do, and Van Hollenâs office did not return a call from ProPublica.
Prosecutors are probing possible voter fraud in Ohio after a judge rebuffed a GOP attempt to obtain lists of names of registrants who had been flagged by database checks.
A Republican filing in that court case cited as its sole evidence a New York Post article which recounted the story of one man who -- after being told by election officials to stop ârepeat registeringâ -- had âbreezed into Ohio election officesâ and had âreregistered with a fake address and cast a paper ballot.â The court filing said âthese bogus registrations can lead, and in fact have led, to fraudulent absentee voting.â
Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters, the southwest Ohio regional chair of the McCain campaign, launched a grand-jury investigation involving several hundred new voters identified in the database checks. He told The Associated Press that heâd received âwidespread complaints of fraud,â but declined to discuss details. Local election officials said they hadnât heard any such complaints.
U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) last week convinced President Bush to ask the Justice Department to revive the Ohio legal challenge for greater scrutiny of new registrants. Otherwise, he warned, âthousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of names whose information has not been verified...will remain on voter rolls...[A]nd there is a significant risk -- if not a certainty, that unlawful votes will be cast and counted.â TheNew York Timesreported that informed sources say Justice will not take up the cause.
Todd Rokita, the Republican secretary of state in Indiana, recently sent federal and state prosecutors a letter demanding a criminal investigation into voter registrations involving ACORN. Rokita wrote, âThis is not simply registration fraud. This is voter fraud . . . [F]raudulent registrations are the first step in . . . rendering an inaccurate tally on Election Day.â In his letter -- portions of which were redacted -- he cited a 2003 local election marred by absentee ballot fraud. His office did not respond to a phone message and detailed email asking about the link between phony registration applications and phony ballots.
Scholars who have authored books documenting election fraud -- political scientists R. Michael Alvarez of the California Institute of Technology, Thad Hall of the University of Utah and University of Kentucky historian Tracy Campbell -- told ProPublica they could not think of an example of registration-driven voter fraud.
Voting rights advocates in recent years have worked to debunk assumptions that elections get stolen because individuals fake their eligibility. They have said that election fraud most commonly involves party operatives bribing legitimate voters or partisan poll workers manipulating ballots.
The modern antifraud movement, calling for scrutiny at the individual voter level, was spearheaded by Republicans after the hairline-close 2000 presidential election, as journalist Jeffrey Toobin has described at length. A five-year, nationwide voter-fraud investigation by the Bush Justice Department yielded 86 convictions as of 2006 -- some for multiple voting or vote buying, and many of people who claimed not to have realized that their citizenship or criminal record mattered.
McCain adviser Michaelson believes that the real way to prevent stolen outcomes -- or, the perception of them -- is to abolish the partisan oversight systems that prevail in most states. Officials, he said, âare the final barriers to election fraud. But we have districts where itâs really hard to find a legitimate Republican or a legitimate Democrat. Even if on paper you have [bipartisan] checks and balances, you really donât.â
âThe problem is when you have a razor-thin margin of victory like in Florida 2000,â Michaelson said, âthen these individual instances of fraud that otherwise would be accepted as part of the imperfect election process -- elections are messy -- just become very, very important.â
âFrankly,â Michaelson said, âall election administrators hope for landslides in their jurisdictions.â
Kristin Jones of ProPublica contributed to this report