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In some cases, it's not the voters who count, it's the counters

ASK THIS | January 13, 2006

As author Tracy Campbell tells it, regardless of the voting method—from paper ballots to absentee voting to electronic machines—there is a long history of election cheating in the U.S., and it is not disappearing. Campbell, an expert on the subject, offers reporters suggestions on what to look for.

By Tracy Campbell

Q. Are all voting devices in your area similar? Are older, less reliable ones in areas that are predominantly of a certain racial or class makeup?

Q. How are absentee ballots distributed in your area? Are witness signatures required? What percentage of the electorate uses absentee ballots? 

Q. What percentage of voters require assistance in the voting booths?

Q. When was the last purge undertaken of your local voting rolls?  How was it conducted?

Q. What is the length of the electioneering-free zone in your state?  What occurs just outside this line?

Q. How are problematic, or "provisional," votes handled?

Q. How much money is spent by the parties or candidates on Election Day activities?

As the butterfly ballots and the hanging chads of 2000 revealed, ballot design is crucial to understanding the election process. Although the Help America to Vote Act (HAVA), enacted in 2002, was supposed to provide funds for states and localities to purchase modern machines, we are still a long way from the day when all voters have the same equipment and use clear-as-crystal ballots. Therefore, it is essential to determine from the outset how precincts can avoid having voters cast "spoiled" ballots. 

Reporters should consider asking which precincts in the last few elections recorded higher level of uncounted or discarded votes, and what types of machines were used in those areas?  They should try to determine if any political patterns are apparent. For example, are spoilage rates in African American areas, i.e., Democratic, considerably higher than in more affluent, white areas? In many cases, an examination of the types of voting machines deployed to various constituencies can reveal some underlying political patterns that are not mere coincidences. 

Today, absentee ballots are the easiest target for vote-buying and manipulation. The moment the ballot leaves the courthouse, secrecy is no longer certain and integrity is open to compromise. While these ballots were once the rare exception and the rules to obtain them rather cumbersome, today absentee ballots are plentiful and relatively easy to acquire. Consequently, in the name of convenience their usage has exploded, and so have the opportunities for fraud.

Absentee ballots account for approximately one-fourth of all ballots in California, and they are on the rise throughout the country. Evidence indicates these ballots do little to alleviate low voter turnouts. In those areas that do not require even witness signatures, such as Florida, all resourceful vote buyers or "brokers" need to do is obtain the ballot, mark it themselves, and mail it back. The absentee ballot is so vital because brokers need not worry about whether the purchased vote was cast accordingly. They can do it themselves.

A witness signature is important because in cases where vote "brokers" are utilized (who receive a payment for each absentee ballot they obtain), the same person can be found signing dozens, if not hundreds, of absentee ballots. Nursing homes are a prime target, especially in those areas that publicize the names of those receiving an absentee ballot. In a recent election in Dallas, brokers literally waited at the mailboxes of people listed in the newspaper and stole their absentee ballots. One reporter noted that the absentee fraud in Dallas was so commonplace that "the people doing it don't even bother to hide it." 

Reporters should examine which counties or areas have higher levels of absentee voting. This can be a giveaway of vote buying. In some rural Kentucky counties recently, the absentee rate doubled the rate in metropolitan Louisville. In these remote areas, local election officials acknowledge that it is remarkable how many people need to be out of town on Election Day. They know the real reason—vote sellers can fetch good prices for giving their absentee ballots to vote brokers. Skillful vote brokers know that some people can provide the ballots of numerous family members. 

One important note: Do not rely on voter turnouts to provide a clue. Sharp spikes in absentee voting can be revealing, but systematic absentee fraud will not be obvious from relatively consistent numbers. 

Vote buying occurs even when a voter goes to the polls. One way is to request assistance in the polls, which illiterates or those with various disabilities may need. This is sometimes abused in order for vote buyers to assure themselves that the purchased ballot is cast correctly. Are more than 1 to 2 percent of the voters in a precinct requesting assistance? Check on the rules for this method and who, precisely, can be inside the booth with the voter.

In 1990, an off-handed statement from an election official to a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that there were more registered voters in East St. Louis than there were residents. The rolls were filled with voters who, though long dead, somehow managed to vote. This is just one example of what local election officials can do if they are brought into your inquiry. Few people know the internal dynamics of voting better than these officials, and getting to know them is a necessary step if you want to understand how local politics work.

Even if your local precincts are apparently "modern" with the most up to date equipment, remember that history does not provide the comforting assumption that all is well. Cheaters have only changed methods with every technological advance. 

Electronic machines that produce paper ballots, for example, may seem the most prudent way to maintain integrity of the voting process, but receipts are a vote buyers' dream. Paper receipts are supposed to remain in the voting booth, of course, but so were the paper ballots. Throughout American history those receipts managed to make their way out of the polls, or the ballots somehow multiply once inside.  When paper ballots exceed the number of votes cast, more might be occurring than mechanical error.

One job of the local election board is to conduct periodic purges of the election rolls to weed out those who have died or moved from the area. Purges are always done in the name of voting integrity by cleansing the system, but can also be a skillful tool to disfranchise legal voters. This was done in Florida preceding the 2000 election, and many people did not know they couldn’t vote until they arrived at the polls. 

Purges have been effective disenfranchisement tools used against African American voters, since such a high proportion of these voters cast their lot with one party. Has a purge been conducted recently? Who conducted the purge and what methods did they use?

To protect the polls, states have enacted "electioneering-free zones" around the voting locales. Within these zones no political activity or discussion can occur. What is the "electioneering-free zone" in your area? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 100-foot lines are constitutional to ward off intimidation and violence at the polls. Recent federal rulings have set back Kentucky's 500-foot line on first amendment grounds, and other states with lines longer than 100 feet are grappling with determining their length. See what activities are barred from the polls in your area and whether the line is properly respected. In rural areas, these lines are sometimes ignored and can reveal other things at work than last minute campaigning.

All ballots produce some type of problems with voters, and "spoiled" ballots are often a prime way for partisans to discount votes of other parties while using the same criteria to count favorable ones. See what the methods are in your area for counting these "provisional" ballots and who, exactly, is determining whether a ballot can be counted or not.  In statewide election recounts, this is where a complex game usually occurs without much public knowledge. In the 2000 Florida election, for example, the New York Times discovered how 600 late arriving overseas absentee ballots had a number of procedural and legal problems, and were more likely to be counted in Republican areas than Democratic ones. After an election, these ballots might be inspected to see if there are partisan problems.

One final word is about money.  Often overlooked in the discussions about campaign finance are the issues associated with Election Day money. See how much money is spent on these activities when the polls open. In Wisconsin in 2000, Democratic workers distributed cigarettes to homeless people in exchange for voting. In other areas, we know alcohol and drugs are the preferred methods of exchange. How many people are paid to drive people to the polls or other such election activities? In remote, rural areas, these "haulers" often masquerade as drivers, yet are paid considerable sums to, in turn, buy votes and get them to the polls. In urban areas, the same process can occur with housing projects.

Another way to investigate whether your area is the source of possible voting problems is to consult Web sites where voters can post their concerns. For example, www.verifiedvoting.org has an “Election Incident Reporting System.”  This system, of course, relies on voters to have experienced some episodes of fraud, to know about the Web site, have access to a computer, and post the problem. In other words, it is not a scientific inquiry but might be a place to start.

What has troubled me over the years is how these types of activities are routinely dismissed as periodic "irregularities" that can usually be blamed on mechanical mistakes. We also tend to think of fraud as a marginal influence when the amount of cheating does not change the results of an election. Even if one side would still win without vote buying or transposing numbers, in the aggregate election fraud dilutes honest votes and erodes the integrity of the very foundations of democracy. It also adds to the demoralization of the modern electorate.

The only way we can begin to change this political culture is by knowing it exists, and the fourth estate has been in the forefront in uncovering this over the years. Voting is the most vulnerable moment in a democracy, and we should remember that politics does not end when the polls open-another type sometimes begins.

Tracy Campbell's Web site
A site devoted to the book, "Deliver the Vote," including excerpts from the book.

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