The amounts of money involved seem small, almost trivial. Some of the East St. Louis, Ill., residents were paid only $5 or $10 for their vote.
But handing out this old-fashioned walking-around cash still earned Sandra Stith a fine and a year's probation in a federal case wrapped up in 2006. According to Justice Department documents, Ms. Stith admitted that she had used money received from the St. Clair County Democratic Committee to influence votes for president and various Illinois races in the general election of Nov. 2, 2004.
As this case shows, voter fraud still exists. Strictly speaking, it is not a relic of the 1800s and the era of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.
But as an issue, it inspires heated partisan debate in Washington. Many Republicans believe it is a widespread threat to the integrity of the voting franchise, particularly in swing states. Many Democrats believe it is a trivial irritant, pushed by the GOP to intimidate minority and lower-income voters.
This argument is reflected in the current debate over the firing of eight US attorneys by the Justice Department. At least two of the dismissed prosecutors had not pursued voting fraud cases with the vigor desired by Justice Department headquarters, according to their own testimony and newly released internal documents.
David Iglesias, former US attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., apparently infuriated some local GOP officials by not bringing charges in a case involving suspicious voter registration cards. John McKay, former US attorney in Seattle, may have similarly angered his former supporters by not pursuing allegations of fraud in the whisker-close 2004 election for Washington state governor.
President Bush himself told Karl Rove and other White House officials that he was hearing complaints about some US attorneys' "lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases," according to the White House.
Traditional election-fraud cases – vote-buying, ballot-stuffing, and illegal voter registrations – are overseen by the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice's Criminal Division.
In 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft made voter fraud a priority by setting up the Attorney General's Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative.
From 2002 through the end of last year, the Justice Department prosecuted about 120 election-fraud cases, according to department figures. From those cases, "86 individuals have been convicted for voter fraud-related offenses," said a senior Justice Department official in a briefing for reporters in late 2006.
For instance, in 2005 Patrick "Buck" Madden was sentenced to 14 months in prison for vote-buying in the federal Eastern District of Kentucky. Mr. Madden had been charged with paying three persons, including two mentally ill people, for their absentee ballot votes in a Knott County, Ky., primary election in May 1998.
Absentee ballots are particularly prone to manipulation, because they are cast outside the view of any election official, according to John Fund, a Wall Street Journal columnist who has written a book about voter-fraud issues.
"Election fraud, whether it's phone voter registrations, illegal absentee ballots, shady recounts, or old-fashioned ballot-box stuffing can be found in every part of the US," wrote Mr. Fund in remarks entered into the record at a March 7 House Judiciary Committee hearing on election problems.
Other experts dispute that statement. The number of election fraud cases is tiny when measured against the approximately 80,000 criminal cases brought every year in US district courts, they point out.
As to the alleged foot-dragging on the part of fired US attorneys McKay and Iglesias, administration critics cite recent statements of FBI Director Robert Mueller. At a March 27 hearing, Mr. Mueller said that as far as he knew there were no FBI investigations into voter fraud that should have produced indictments and didn't.
"Virtually every academic study of voter fraud concludes that it is not close to being a substantial problem, if it exists at all," writes Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, in a commentary on the subject.
Such antifraud efforts as requiring voters to produce picture IDs have the effect of suppressing minority and low-income votes, claim Mr. Neas and others. Those voters are less likely than average voters to have driver's licenses, passports, or other official picture IDs, according to critics.