Are voter fraud fears overblown?

Jae C. Hong/AP
Scrutiny: Nevada secretary of state officials raided ACORN’s office in Las Vegas last week looking for evidence of voter registration fraud.

Depending on whom you listen to, this election is either facing “the greatest fraud in voter history,” or a minor nuisance from lazy registration gatherers.

The more alarming interpretation comes from Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He leveled the charge against ACORN, a national activist group that’s the source of faulty registrations in about a dozen states and the target of a government raid in Las Vegas. Citing unnamed sources, the Associated Press reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the group.

But many elections experts consider Senator McCain’s assertion to be hyperbole. Fake voter registration applications, they say, tend to be an effort by individual low-wage workers to cheat on a day’s work, not cheat the vote on Election Day. Someone might register “Mickey Mouse,” but Mr. Mouse isn’t likely to show up to vote.

“It’s hyperbole because there’s no good evidence that voter registration fraud leads to election fraud that changes elections. And it’s irresponsible because it gins up worries that the election is going to be stolen,” says Richard L. Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Research into voting fraud by Lorraine Minnite at Barnard College in New York has turned up no contemporary cases of an election thrown out or overturned due to fraudulent registration. She found only two prosecutions for people faking others’ registrations between 2002 and 2005, involving a total of 13 false applications.

The anti-ACORN rhetoric, she says, is on the verge of “complete distortion.”

Founded in 1970, the Louisiana-based Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now says it advocates for poor people. This election, some 13,000 ACORN workers have registered an unprecedented 1.3 million people.

“When you hire 13,000 employees, you are going to have some who won’t do the job,” says ACORN spokesman Charles Jackson. The “rogue workers” who submitted phony registrations were fired immediately, he adds. The faked registrations were sent to election officials – as required by the law in many locales – but filed separately and flagged.

ACORN says it flagged 80 percent of the registrations that raised officials’ eyebrows.

Neither Mr. Hasen nor Ms. Minnite find the reported problems to be disproportionate to the size of ACORN’s operation.

Others disagree, particularly many Republicans who see the scope of reported problems indicative of systemic fraud. “In my opinion, it is now becoming racketeering,” says James Lacy, a lawyer who served in the Reagan administration and now leads conservative causes in California. “That we see it now involving a multitude of states and a multitude of voters, I think at some level ACORN is becoming a criminal enterprise in its engagement of voter registration activities.”

In Indiana, Lake County officials stopped processing about 5,000 applications after the first 2,100 looked bogus. ACORN registrations in Nevada included the names of Dallas Cowboys football stars. And the secretary of state’s office in Nevada raided ACORN’s Las Vegas branch last week.

In the affidavit, fired ACORN workers described fudging registrations out of laziness or because of the heat – not because of orders from above. ACORN leaders also appeared to be cooperating with Nevada officials.

The raid was undertaken because officials believed there were other phony registrations that workers weren’t catching, says Bob Walsh, spokesman for the Nevada secretary of state, a Democrat. But, he adds, “There’s a big difference – a quantum leap – between registration fraud and voter fraud.”

It’s difficult for one individual to cast many votes through fraudulent registration, and difficult to keep widespread collusion secret, say experts.

For one, federal law requires identification when signing up for absentee ballots by mail. Moreover, it’s risky to vote at the same polling station multiple times, and setting up fake registrations in different precincts is “an awful lot of effort,” says Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors.

That said, tests comparing different statewide voter databases have found people registering – and more rarely voting – in two states simultaneously, he says.

Voter rolls can be buggy. As many as 200,000 new registrants in Ohio show mismatches with records in other government databases, but the secretary of state there has resisted GOP lawsuits to purge the rolls, arguing many mismatches are likely typographical errors.

What particularly frustrates Mr. Lewis about duplicate and fraudulent registration cards is how they tie up election workers from processing legitimate applications before elections.

ACORN isn’t a monolithic group, says Lewis, and some offices seem better than others at curbing junk applications.

Every local branch has separate staffs for canvassing and quality control, explains Brian Mellor, senior counsel for Project Vote. Canvassers are paid $8 an hour and must sign a statement that lays out what constitutes fraud. Completed cards head to quality control staff, who try calling each registrant three times. Suspicious cards are given to a manager who confronts the canvassers.

Republican suspicions of ACORN deepened when it emerged that Barack Obama’s campaign paid the group through an intermediary for getting-out-the-vote operations during the primaries – then falsely reported the expenditure. The campaign has called it a clerical error.

Such involvement with a partisan campaign has raised eyebrows in Washington as the group has received US government funds and is presumed by some to be tax-exempt. However, Mr. Jackson with ACORN says his group is nonprofit but not tax-exempt.

“By not being tax-exempt, they are hiding their activity from the public, so it is a misnomer to call themselves a nonprofit organization,” says Mr. Lacy.

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