The proliferation of absentee ballots and lax identification requirements create a space for serious voter fraud to occur. Better identification safeguards and a federal database of absentee ballot requests would go a long way to avoiding these potential problems.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is drawing intensifying fire in the final days of the presidential campaign. ACORN, as the group is known, is ostensibly involved in the commendable job of registering voters.
The problem is, it has been caught numerous times registering people who either don't exist or aren't eligible to vote. The misdeeds have been widespread. ACORN members in Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin and Missouri have been convicted of voter registration fraud, and investigations are open in Nevada, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
The simplest scam would be for a poll worker to call up co-conspirators late on Election Day and read a list of individuals who haven't voted. The co-conspirators could then report to the polls under those names.
Many counties have reported that registration cards submitted by ACORN--an organization that advocates for liberal causes such as higher minimum wages and unionizing efforts--and its affiliates contain more errors than any other voter-registration group. Election officials in several states have said at least 20 percent of ACORN registration forms are faulty.
ACORN's defenders have said that the actions of overzealous ACORN workers to register Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck won't influence the election because "Mickey" will never vote. For example, Politico.com's Ben Smith earlier this month argued that "the key distinction here is between voter fraud and voter registration fraud, one of which is truly dangerous, the other a petty crime."
Others disagree. In the last presidential debate, Senator John McCain accused the organization of being "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country."
How It's Done
Whether ACORN plans to try to turn false registrations into votes is hard to know, of course. But sadly, there are a number of pretty simple steps one could take to steal an election, given current law.
The most dangerous scams would begin with actions similar to ACORN's. Here is how it might work:
First, someone fills out a large number of fake registrations. For convenience, the scammer could register fictional people at his own address.
Then, the scammer requests absentee ballots for all these individuals. Federal law requires that first-time voters submit their vote with some form of identification. Some states consider such things as utility bills acceptable. It would be pretty simple for the scammer to falsify utility bills for each fake voter and mail them in with the absentee ballots.
The Dead Vote
A sophisticated operation wouldn't rely just on newly registered voters. Many states require no identification for someone who has voted in the past. Anyone with access to public voter-registration records could cull a list of individuals who have died, moved or failed to vote in past elections and request absentee ballots for them.
These ballots could be mailed in and likely would be counted. In many states, the only check would be whether the signature on the ballots matches the registration card.
Such a pattern isn't mere speculation. In his book, "Stealing Elections," Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund tells the story of a Las Vegas bar owner who solicited votes from his tavern's customers while campaigning for the Nevada Assembly. If his patrons weren't registered, or if they were registered in a different area, the bar owner provided them with bogus voter-registration cards and had them complete absentee ballot requests using the bar's address.
Although he failed to make it past the Republican primary, the tavern owner campaigned against his primary challenger in the general election and submitted dozens of ballots in support of the Democratic candidate. His downfall came only when he boasted to an elected county recorder about what he had done.
Investigators later found that 160 voters had been illegally registered during the election, and many of the illegitimate ballots were sent to the tavern. The bar owner was fined $7,000 for the offense, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Such a scam is possible on a national level. How can we tell whether it has happened? If the proportion of absentee ballots for a given candidate is much different from the proportion of votes cast at the polling booth, then further investigation would be warranted.
Fraud at the voting place is conceivable as well, but probably would be harder to pull off. The simplest scam would be for a poll worker to call up co-conspirators late on Election Day and read a list of individuals who haven't voted. The co-conspirators could then report to the polls under those names.
Legal experts are aware of all of these problems and have begun to work on fixes. A first step is allowing absentee ballots or early voting only when there is a reasonable cause for the voter to be unable to vote, such as a hospital stay.
Edward Foley, a professor at Ohio State University and a leading election law expert, summed it up well when he told me, "I am not a big fan of at-home voting, given the risk of what can go wrong."
Although Foley sees little risk of fraud at the polling place, he has proposed a solution designed to crack down on forgery without requiring voters to produce a driver's license or other photo identification. Under Foley's plan, voting rolls would be electronic and would include photos alongside names of registered voters.
Given the widespread concern over voter fraud, the next president should consider a reform like Foley's. If he does, I would add one other condition.
The biggest risk is the proliferation of "vote shops" like the one set up by the Nevada bartender. To combat this, a federal database should record every address that receives an absentee ballot. If a single-family home in Washington receives 300 absentee ballots, the database would flag the address and alert investigators.
It is hard to see how any responsible individual could defend the current system.
Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies at AEI.