The prevalence of voter fraud and what to do about it are hot topics across the nation, but for Richmond County Elections Director Lynn Bailey, it’s almost a non-issue.
In her 19 years as elections director, Bailey said she can’t recall a single proven case of voter fraud.
“Voter fraud is not an issue that takes up much of my time because we just don’t see it,” Bailey said.
Many conservative groups don’t see it that way. The push nationwide has been to increase safeguards against fraud at the polls by passing laws – such as one in Georgia – that require voters to present photo identification.
At least 30 states, including South Carolina, have enacted some sort of voter ID legislation. A panel of three federal judges upheld that law last week, but delayed enforcement until next year.
In their unanimous ruling, the judges said there was no discriminatory intent behind South Carolina’s law, ruling that it would not diminish the voting rights of black residents because people who face a “reasonable impediment” to getting an acceptable photo ID can still vote if they sign an affidavit.
Opponents of such legislation say the problem of voter fraud is greatly exaggerated and that voter ID laws don’t address areas where fraud is an issue.
A recent nationwide study by News21, a student-journalism project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found only about 2,000 cases of documented voter fraud since 2000.
Voter impersonation, the type of fraud most often cited by supporters of voter ID initiatives, was found to be extremely rare.
News21 contacted election officers throughout the U.S. for examples of all sorts of election fraud, and found only 10 cases in which impersonation fraud was alleged – about 1 percent of all cases combined.
The most prevalent type of fraud cited was absentee ballot fraud. About 24 percent of known cases involved ineligible voters casting absentee ballots in someone else’s name.
Linda Brown, the state leader of True the Vote, a national organization that supports voter ID laws and seeks to ensure accuracy and reliability of voter registration lists, said voter fraud is a widespread problem in the U.S. that has an effect on elections.
As an example, she cited the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman. The close race resulted in a protracted court battle and a recount that went in Franken’s favor. His final margin of victory over Coleman was 312 votes out of about 2.9 million cast.
After the election, a conservative group called Minnesota Majority claimed to have identified 1,099 felons who were ineligible to vote who had cast ballots.
Brown said those ineligible voters allowed Franken to win and gave Democrats enough votes in the Senate to push through the Affordable Care Act.
“That election is why we have Obamacare,” she said.
Independent journalists and Minnesota elections officials have disputed that claim, however. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the Minnesota Majority numbers appeared to be overstated and of the felons that did cast votes, there is no record of who they voted for, making it impossible to say Franken benefitted.
Nevertheless, Brown said True the Vote has been able to find ineligible voters on rolls across Georgia – including in Augusta.
Last week, True the Vote representatives challenged the registrations of 37 Richmond County voters at the monthly Board of Elections meeting. Brown said her organization found that those on the list had given business addresses as their place of residence on registration applications – primarily mini-storage businesses and a UPS Store in Daniel Village.
Elections officials found that of the 37 challenged, two people had since moved to other counties and two others had updated their addresses elsewhere within the county. The 33 others were ruled ineligible and struck from the rolls, Bailey said.
Brown said True the Vote will continue to check voter lists after the election. The goal is to ensure accurate voting rolls and not to disenfranchise legitimate voters.
“We know that the boards of elections in Richmond and Columbia counties are very good at keeping up-to-date and accurate lists,” Brown said. “They do a good job, but we are assisting in what they are doing and in no way countering what they are doing.”
Bailey said the information from True the Vote was helpful, but it falls in line with the series of safeguards already in place to ensure that those on the county’s voting rolls are properly registered and will cast legal votes on Election Day.
To purge dead voters from the rolls, for example, elections workers check newspaper obituaries every day and remove names of voters who have died. They also check a statewide database that tracks voter deaths and periodically check records with the local department of vital statistics, Bailey said.
They also look for felony convictions. The state notifies the board of election of such convictions and those people are also removed from voter lists.
“I would say every county in Georgia uses the same practices,” she said. “I’m very confident with the checks we have in place.”
Another problem they check for is duplicate registrations. With more than 7 million registered voters in Georgia, Bailey said it is possible for someone to be registered in two locations. It is probably the most common problem encountered with voter rolls, she said.
Most often this occurs when a voter has moved to a different county and registered again, instead of just updating their information, she said.
If someone tries to subvert election laws by registering in a place other than where they live, they have committed a crime, Bailey said
“That would be considered false swearing – a felony in Georgia,” she said. “We would refer that case to the district attorney’s office.”
Brown said True the Vote intends to have poll watchers in as many local precincts as possible on Nov. 6 to ensure election machines aren’t manipulated and that poll workers are doing their jobs properly.
“We are also training people to be poll watchers and we need more volunteers,” she said. “We will have as many as volunteers as we can train.”
Bailey said her poll workers are well trained, but poll watchers aren’t uncommon in local elections and each party is allowed to have two at each precinct.
“Generally, in this type of election we do have poll watchers,” she said.