Vote Fraud: A Little Bit is Good for Democracy, Even When the GOP Does It
Latest twist in the great imaginary vote fraud epidemic of 2012: Now Republicans are nabbed doing exactly the same stuff they have accused Democrats of doing. In a piece in this morning's New York Times we get a peek at voter hanky-panky, GOP-style.
An operative named Nathan Sproul, who has received many millions of dollars from the Republican Party and from rich Republican individuals, has been linked to an array of sketchy-sounding, possibly illegal voter registration practices. I love that.
My reservation is this: I think the Times piece, at the very least, buries the lead, and it's possible the Times reporters, like most reporters, still don't get what vote fraud really is or how it works.
Hey, we in Dallas could teach them a thing or two. At various moments in the not too distant past, Dallas has been sort of the vote fraud capital of America.
No, seriously ...
First thing to know: Vote fraud seldom works the way casual observers assume it would work. Second thing to know: It almost never involves real human beings showing up at the polls to cast ballots under somebody else's name. And third: A little bit of vote fraud is maybe even a good thing.
Let's do the voter impersonation part first, since that's the popular Republican image of vote fraud -- busloads of nonwhite non-citizens showing up in Pancho Villa costumes to cast ballots in rich white suburbs. Does. Not. Happen.
For only one recent examination of that issue, I refer you to a report published last August by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program:
"A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent."
Generally speaking, you don't pay a coyote two thousand bucks, swim the Rio Grande, walk five days in the desert, sleep with Gila monsters, spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder in Dallas and then risk all of that to go stand in some official government queue in a place bristling with posters and warnings and other reminders of your extreme vulnerability because some dude paid you 20 bucks to vote in an election in a country where you know you're not allowed to vote because it's not your country.
The kind of vote fraud that does take place -- the kind we have seen here -- is exactly the kind the Republican dude has been linked to: low-wage employees who are paid on a piece-work basis to sign up new voters, cheating on the paperwork to make it look like they've signed up more voters than they have so they can get paid more money.
In addition to being called vote fraud, this kind of practice is sometime also referred to as "The American Way." It's your basic entrepreneurial spirit, coloring outside the lines a tad.
The only real hard-copy hanky-panky I can see in the Times piece about Sproul involves instances where field workers may have faked the papers to make it look like a Democrat whom they are registering to vote is really a Republican. But why? Do we think it's a way to force Democrats to vote Republican? "Oh, no, sir, I'm sorry, but we were looking over your shoulder just now, and we saw that you were thinking of filling in the dot next to that damn Democrat's name, and we have a piece of paper here that says you promised to vote only for Republicans. And, by the way, you were supposed to wear a Pancho Villa costume."
Yeah, that's stupid. It's not about getting people to vote one way or the other. It's about the signer-upper getting paid. The Times story paraphrases a woman who worked for Sproul registering people to vote: "The woman told investigators that she was paid only when she registered Republicans or those who said they would vote for President George W. Bush."
Yeah, see how that works. At the end of the day you turn in the paperwork for all the voters you signed up that day. All the ones who checked, "Democrat," you get zip, nada, thank you for your service. And if my own experience as a reporter tells me anything, it tells me those forms wind up in the river anyway.
All the forms with the Republican box checked: kaching, kaching.
Years ago former Dallas City Council member Sandra Crenshaw told me this story: One fine summer day in South Dallas Crenshaw "came upon" (as in, Sandra was innocently wandering 'round South Dallas one day plucking dandelions for a necklace and, lo and behold, she "came upon...") a group of young people sitting under a tree thinking up fake names while they filled out absentee ballot requests.
The point was, they got five bucks for every request they turned in, and precious little was done to check the authenticity of the requests. This brings us to the tangled web of who may actually benefit from vote fraud.
There can be true mischief in the matter of absentee ballots, mainly because you don't have to wear a Pancho Villa costume to mail one in: Somebody just mails it in under your name, and maybe you don't even know. In 2003 former Texas state Representative Steve Wolens introduced successful legislation designed to clean up and rein in those abuses. One hopes it worked. One doesn't know for sure.
Much of Wolen's motivation and a whole lot of his knowledge probably came from his wife, Laura Miller, who had been a City Council member from 1998 to 2002 and was elected mayor of Dallas in 2002. How do I know she was his main source? I don't really. I'm just guessing, because so much of my own knowledge of vote fraud in Dallas came from Miller, who was, you may or may not recall, my predecessor here at Dallas Observer.
In her council career and early on as mayor, Miller was often up against the traditional downtown Dallas business elite (with whom she eventually made nice). Miller figured out that somebody was funding absentee ballot fraud operations in black Dallas to support sold-out black officeholders who could then be counted on to vote against the interests of their own constituents and in favor of ... you guessed it ... the business elite.
If you think that's far-fetched, check out the ongoing FBI investigation of the county's longest tenured and most powerful black politician, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. As far as we can tell, that investigation does not include any suspicion of vote fraud, but it does include the even deeper-running allegation of politicians selling out their own poor and benighted constituents in order to serve the interests of a bunch of rich white Republicans.
It happens. Everything happens. Life happens in America.
What does not happen, according to any and all available evidence, is the Republican urban myth of busloads of Pancho Villa costumes showing up to vote under the names of dead white people. On the other hand, we will certainly always see some amount of fraud involving low-wage field workers faking documents in order to get paid higher piece-work amounts.
And it's still always possible that somebody will figure out ways to exploit gray-area procedures like the absentee mail-in ballot to turn elections in districts where turnout is miniscule and small numbers of ballots can make the difference. For that to happen, somebody has to give a damn. You only buy an election for somebody you have reason to believe will stay bought. But at some level, it will happen.
So I started out by saying a certain amount of vote fraud is a good thing. How could I believe that?
It's a good thing, because voting is such a good thing. Voting itself cleanses whatever small wounds may be inflicted on the process by petty cheats. So some of the people signed up to vote by Sproul had the wrong party checked on their application? So some drops are spilled betwixt cup and lip? If more people show up and vote, it's worth it. Higher voter turn-outs make us a more robust, balanced, stable and just society.
The real poison is anything that would ratchet down too strictly on the requirements and procedures for voting. Lower voter turnout equals more banana republic. Higher voter turn-out equals stronger democratic society.
So, yeah, we have to watch. Some. Yeah, Republicans can get in Dutch over it just like Democrats. And no, by the way, this Sproul guy probably is not a massive fraud gangster at all. He's doing the good work of voter registration, as far as I can see, and out of the thousands of field workers he hires, yup, some have feet of clay. Sic Transit Gloria Peditorum.
The big thing is voting. More is better. Democracy's a mess. Feet are a mess. Tell me what's better.