News Analysis: Voter fraud new partisan weapon in elections fight
With Election Day 2012 just sixteen months away, the controversy about changes to election rules like voter ID, voter registration and early voting has intensified as the familiar partisan battle lines emerge across the nation.
This year has seen the emergence of a new weapon in the fight: high-profile allegations of fraud by prominent state officials designed not just to spur action but get attention – and they are getting plenty of attention as the resulting reaction widens the divide in debate about fraud and disenfranchisement in American elections.
Three recent examples demonstrate the depth and breadth of this phenomenon.
In March, Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) released a six-page report alleging that as many as 11,000 non-citizens may have cast ballots in the Centennial State.
Gessler made his announcement not long after the Colorado legislature had rejected election reform legislation that would have required voters to show a photo ID to vote as well as prove their citizenship to register and allow the state to cross-check voter rolls to determine if existing registered voters are citizens.
The announcement got tremendous play around the country; in state, however, the allegations were met with some skepticism from advocates and some election officials, who questioned the methodology of the study – which used 2006 citizenship data to draw conclusions about the 2010 voter rolls.
In New Mexico, new Secretary of State Dianna Duran (R) has come under fire for enlisting the state police to investigate 64,000 claims of voter fraud in The Land of Enchantment.
In March Duran announced that her office was investigating 37 cases of voter fraud and in June she turned over those records as well as thousands more saying that they need “further review.”
In mid-July Duran testified before a state legislative committee explaining her rationale for forwarding the records to the state police instead of enlisting the help of county clerks who claim they are better able to identify voter fraud than police investigators.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Duran over her investigation claiming she is violating the state’s public records law by asserting “executive privilege” by not releasing the documents surrounding the voter fraud investigation.
The investigation has stirred the political pot in New Mexico with Democrats accusing Duran of creating problems where none previously existed.
"My concern is she is creating fear and causing people not to go to the polls and suppressing the vote," state Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat and co-chairman of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, whose members grilled Duran during a public hearing July 15, told The Los Angeles Times.
Duran asserts that she is just doing her job.
"I am simply adhering to the promise I made to voters all over the state," Duran told the newspaper.
The Pine Tree State has suddenly become a key battleground in this year’s fights over election policy. The state legislature failed to enact photo ID legislation, but did succeed in repealing same-day registration, which the state had employed since 1973.
The latter action brought an immediate response from advocates who began an effort to get a “people’s veto” of the repeal on the November ballot.
Into this already volatile mix stepped State Republican Party Chair Charlie Webster, who recently held a press conference at which he claimed voter fraud is highly likely among college students and this week Webster handed a list of 206 names of out-of-state University of Maine students who are registered to vote in Maine to the Secretary of State’s Office for investigation of possible voter fraud.
Not long after, Secretary of State Charlie Summers (R) announced that his office was also investigating allegations that non-citizens had been permitted to register to vote in Maine, allegations that former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap (D) said he had determined were unfounded during his term which ended earlier this year.
Prominent allegations, powerful (and predictable) reactions
Not surprisingly, all three of these cases have garnered significant attention. Even less surprising in the current environment, a sharp divide exists on how seriously states should treat these allegations.
For example, the blog The Daily Caller recently featured dueling commentaries that both cited Colorado and New Mexico as evidence in support of their position: Cleta Mitchell of the Republican National Lawyers Association pointed to the investigations by Secretaries Gessler and Duran as proof to help “set the record straight” on photo ID. Shortly thereafter, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington pointed to the flaws in both studies as proof that “the mass voter fraud Ms. Mitchell and her cohorts complain of simply can’t be found.”
The Maine controversy has ignited a spirited debate within the state but has also raised eyebrows with regard to the timing of both allegations. The Bangor Daily News, even as it urged Secretary Summers to investigate the student fraud allegations, observed that “it is no coincidence that [these] allegations … are surfacing now,” given that proponents of the same-day registration repeal need “to bolster their case in the face of [the] people’s veto effort.
Thus, while the tactic of high-profile allegations of fraud may be a new wrinkle, the effect of this tactic on the nation debate – which continues to get hotter with every day – is deeply familiar.