TESTIMONY   

 
   

 

Testimony
U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Dr. Larry J. Sabato
Director, University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies
May 3, 2001

  Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today about the intertwined issues of voter registration and vote fraud in the United States. 

  Of course, this is a subject that has received considerable attention during the months since the ballots were cast in the 2000 Presidential election. 

  Let me begin my remarks by stating what all of us familiar with politics already know.  Fraud and corruption in the American electoral system did not start with the 2000 Presidential election.  In fact, evidence of corruption spans the entire history of our Republic.  

  What could be unique at this point in our nation?s history is the degree to which we, as a nation, can embark on a serious discussion of how to reform the system to limit the extent of electoral fraud and corruption. 

  The November 2000 election can serve as the catalyst for such a debate.  By all means, we should toss out antiquated voting machines that poorly count properly cast ballots.  But we ought simultaneously to spend sufficient resources to reduce vote fraud in several states.

  When we look at the registration system and voting process in the U. S., we have to balance two conflicting values, two equally worthy objectives:

  1. The goal of full and informed participation of the electorate.
  2. The integrity of the system. 

  To the extent that we keep expanding the participation rate and make it easier and easier for people to register and vote, we almost certainly increase the chances for voter fraud.  So, in a sense, it is a trade off.  To move completely in the direction of one value as opposed to the other is foolhardy.  We must achieve a balance between these two important democratic values.  Currently we do not have a good balance.

  As Election 2000 demonstrated, the problems are numerous.  I draw your attention to several of the most egregious instances of fraud that were encountered last year, and in other recent elections.

  Last November, as reported by The Miami Herald, the votes of a 90-year-old woman and 21-year-old man were among more than 2,000 illegal ballots cast by Florida residents who swore they were eligible to vote, but in fact were not.  The woman voted absentee and in person, while the man voted despite a felony drug conviction.  These 2,000 illegal ballots were discovered in just 25 of Florida?s 67 counties ? this in a presidential race won by only 537 ballots in Florida.

 These voters cast ballots even though their names were not on precinct voter registration lists, because all they had to do was sign an affirmation swearing they were eligible to vote. 

  Even though they were supposed to, poll workers never checked to see if these 2,000 people were actually registered.  In addition to these 2,000, there were 1,200 instances of convicted Florida felons who had been legally stripped of their right to vote, but nevertheless managed to stay on the voting rolls and cast their ballot in the last election.  There is also some indication that at least a few people who maintain two residencies cast ballots in two different states, one by absentee and the other in person.

  Similarly, in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that at least 361 felons voted illegally last November 7th, breaking the state law that disqualifies felons from voting until they are off probation and parole.   Like Florida, Wisconsin was the site of a very close Bush-Gore contest.

But it doesn?t stop with Florida and Wisconsin, and as I suggested, fraud didn?t just appear during the 2000 Presidential election.  

  Just a glance at the past decade shows many examples of electoral fraud.  You don?t even have to look very closely to find, as I did in my book Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics:

  Extensive absentee ballot fraud in Alabama.

  Hundreds of phony registrations in California.

  Nearly 1,000 illegal votes in New Jersey including some by people who were unregistered and others who were dead. 

  Significant absentee ballot fraud in Philadelphia.

  Votes stolen from the elderly and infirm in Texas

  And the list goes on and on. 

  Voter fraud is not limited only to these examples.  My strong suspicion ? based on scores of investigated and unexplored tips from political observers and interviewees over the years ? is that some degree of vote fraud can be found almost everywhere, and serious outbreaks can and do occur in every region of the country. 

  Whether fraud is Democratic or Republican, or located in the North or the South or the West, the effect on American democracy is similar.  While electoral hanky-panky affects the outcome in only a small proportion of elections (mainly in very tight races), one fraudulent ballot is one too many for the integrity of the system and the confidence that the people have in the system. 

  The need for reform is urgent and clear. Voter turnout in the United States is traditionally too low, and cynicism among citizens too high, to permit the malodorous malady of election fraud to continue unchecked ? or to spread. 

  No system is absolutely foolproof, but at the very least it seems to me that we could all agree that a photo identification card (of any sort) should be produced by each voter at the polls.

  Second, voters should be asked at the time of registration to give a number unique to them ? a social security number, a driver?s license number ? that can be prerecorded on the voter list provided each precinct?s workers. 

  Third, every voter should have to sign his name on the voting rolls at the polls so that the signature can be compared to the one on the registration form to see if they match up.  This comparison would probably be made only in the event the results of a close election were challenged, although again, the computer technology already exists for instantaneously scrolling, side by side, the poll signature and the registration signature. 

  Fourth, all potential voters ought to be advised at the polls, whether orally by an elections official or by means of a printed statement of the eligibility requirements for voting and the penalties for fraudulent voting.  A similar warning should be prominently featured on all absentee and early-voting/mail-in ballots.  These four overlapping safeguards are not too burdensome for voters and poll workers, but they would to a long way toward discouraging fraud at the precinct stations on Election Day.

  Fifth, no early-voting/mail-in and absentee ballot should ever be separated from its cover sheet and counted until the voter?s signature has been carefully checked against the registration file signatures.  Every envelope containing the marked absentee or early-voting/mail-in ballot should also be signed by an adult witness whose address should also be listed. 

  Finally, Mr. Chairman let me say that these regulations, even if adopted universally and followed to the letter, will be insufficient if:

      (1)   registrars and elections offices are not staffed and funded adequately;
     (2)   the statutes do not punish fraud severely ? major felonies are required, not minor misdemeanors;
     (3)   law enforcement authorities do not make voter fraud a priority and press for substantial legal penalties            against those found violating the fraud statutes; and
     (4)   the news media do not begin to look for evidence of voter fraud ? a probable prerequisite to their               finding it.  A good first step would be for every news organization to establish and publicize a ?campaign            corruption hotline.?

  The examples I listed earlier, and others throughout the nation make it obvious that the solutions required for voter fraud must necessarily be adapted to each locality?s culture and practice.  But one imperative unites all the cases:  While registration and voting should be as easy as possible, the process should also be as fraud-proof as possible.

 

Thank you Mr. Chairman. 

 
 

 

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