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Advocacy Group May Have Registered Phony "Voters." But Does It Matter?

Reality Base
By Melissa Lafsky
Oct 15, 2008 1:28 AMNov 5, 2019 1:30 AM


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Voter fraud can happen more easily than we think (along with just about every other form of election fraud). In the past few weeks, the McCain camp has been hammering away at the voter fraud issue, specifically targeting the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a nationwide advocacy group that has made recent headlines for its vigorous campaign to register new voters—the vast majority of which happen to be poor or working class, and Democrats. For the $16 million ACORN has poured into the 2008 campaign, the agency has achieved some impressive results: The tallies indicate that it added 1.3 million new voters to the rolls. Of course, whether those 1.3 million registrations actually correspond to 1.3 million human beings is under investigation. In Las Vegas, investigators raided an ACORN office and seized documents based on claims of registration fraud, and authorities in other states are also taking a closer look at the agency's practices. Allegations are flying around that ACORN employees filled out hundreds, or possibly even thousands of registration cards with fake names, or the names of prison inmates. One man is facing questioning for allegedly registering to vote 10 to 15 times through ACORN (though assuming all the registrations were for himself, and he only votes once, his actions are hardly a crime). Cue the self-righteous blustering about the perilous state of democracy, which have been countered with charges that the investigations are really just a means of disenfranchising minority voters. Meanwhile, ACORN is rushing to restore its reputation with a PR blitz including a press release that states the following:

According to [voting rights] experts, spreading fears of fraudulent voting—which happens less often in the U.S. than death by lightning—is done to discredit voter registration efforts and justify restrictive laws that place additional barriers to full participation for all Americans.

For the record, around 90 people per year are killed by lightning in the U.S. Investigators are looking into at least 2,100 possible bogus voter applications in Indiana alone—not to mention thousands more in Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada. So there goes that theory. But how often does voter fraud [as opposed to the alleged registration fraud] really occur? And if ACORN did in fact fudge registrations, what are their chances of actually getting away with casting fraudulent votes?

Unfortunately, according to Dan Wallach, an e-voting expert and associate professor of computer science at Rice University, the answers to both depend on a number of factors, none of which we know for sure.

"The problem is we don’t have good data on voter fraud," Wallach told DISCOVER. "If I add fake people to real voting rolls, it's very difficult to know how much damage I could do. If those fake people were voting by mail, it would be straightforward to inject fake ballots into the real votes. This is much harder to do with polling, since someone has to show up and convince poll employees that they’re a real voter."

Complicating matters more is that states have different rules regarding what and how much ID voters must show at the polls. "Some states don't require you to show any ID," said Wallach, "so if you have five different voter registration cards, you could conceivably vote five different times."

What we do know is that whether voter fraud become an issue all depends on the margin of victory in November. Given the number of questionable registrations we're talking about in each state (not all of which are for Democrats), it's highly unlikely that, even if every one of the alleged fake "voters" managed to cast a ballot, it would affect the outcome.

Then again, there's always Florida.

Related: DISCOVER: Protecting Your Vote with Invisible Ink

RB: Voting in America: Let the Pre-Game Mess Begin!

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