The trouble with chasing voter fraud

By this time, most of you have probably already seen the coverage of James O’Keefe’s attempts to infiltrate the New Hampshire primary and “sting” them in a demonstration of how voter fraud could occur. This may not have been the smartest approach, particularly for a person on parole, (Business Insider explains why this may result in criminal charges) but it highlights a couple of things which should spur the national discussion.

First, if you wanted to commit voter fraud, going through the obituaries for the past month or two might not be a bad way to go. If the state doesn’t require any form of ID, the death notices of local residents and a little time on Google could doubtless give you all the information you’d need. Of course, the major failing of this plan – as one of O’Keefe’s agents found out the hard way – is that the precinct system has everyone voting essentially in their own home neighborhoods. (Not counting write-in ballots.) This means there’s a chance, as in the linked story, that you’re going to show up, announce the name of your assumed identity, Mr. Baxter, and old blue haired Mrs. Cleaver at the registration desk is going to jump out of her chair and proclaim that she just attended the funeral of her lifelong friend Mr. Baxter not two weeks earlier.

But the experiment proves, if nothing else, that it very likely could be done. Or does it? O’Keefe says that three agents went to “a dozen polling places” during this operation. If we take that as fact, they made 36 attempts and were called out by a polling place worker at one of them. How many fake ballots would you need to engineer to have any significant impact on an election across the state? If you have a failure rate of roughly 3%, it wouldn’t take long before so many incidents turned up that the entire election would be called into question. I have no idea what a state would or could do in that event, though.

But that brings us to a larger question. I personally favor voter ID laws as long as they are carefully implemented in a way that doesn’t create an unreasonable barrier to voting and doesn’t involve any sort of fee for getting a valid ID. (Which would serve as a poll tax.) And I understand some of the concerns being raised by opponents. We can have a civil and totally valid debate on that, and we should. But the most frequent defense I hear from too many opponents is, “this is a non-problem. There are so few proven instances of voter fraud that this is clearly a trumped up issue.”

Here’s why this a hollow argument to me. In order to have a record of any crimes, you have to either catch people committing the crime, attempting to do so, or at least have some mechanism for proving that a crime was committed which would prompt you to investigate it. And unless you luck out and get an eye witness protestation and report, as in the Mrs. Cleaver example above, how would one know that a crime had ever taken place? Even conducting a spot check is a logistical nightmare. Under State law, precincts are not allowed more than 2,999 voters, but that’s a lot of people. Would you have to call everyone who voted to say, “Oh, by the way, did you actually vote on Tuesday?”

You can think of it in terms of the murder rate in the country, just for one example. Yes, you can look up the data for how many people are determined to have been murdered or died under suspicious circumstances each year and determine the rate. But every law enforcement officer will tell you that this doesn’t describe the entire story. How many people die in what seem to be questionable ways but no conclusive proof is found? Far worse than that, how many people simply disappear each year? Some may have just run away, but how many are dead and the bodies are never either recovered or matched up to a missing person report? The real rate is undoubtedly much higher.

Now, coming full circle, stop to consider that people turning up dead is actually something we do care about and something we investigate every single time we find one. Who is out there identifying, recording and reporting possible incidents of voter fraud? The answer, I believe, is pretty much nobody. We run what is essentially an honor system, hoping that no significant number of people would be such a bunch of stinkers that they would try to game the system upon which rests the foundation of our democracy. Are we seriously that gullible in this day and age?

I’m not saying there are clean and easy answers here. Obviously there aren’t and it’s something that needs to be approached with care and restraint. But pretending there is “nothing to see here” seems to be intentionally dishonest. It’s time to begin closing the loop on this, and we can certainly do it in a fair, constitutionally sound fashion.