During last week’s special congressional election, I was a poll watcher for Bob Turner’s campaign. I hadn’t really paid attention to the process before, and was struck by how easy something like voter fraud seems. If you’re registered to vote in New York State, all you have to do to cast your ballot is go to your polling place, sign your name, and follow the instructions for the machine. They don’t ask you for ID (although you do need ID the first time you register to vote). While the poll workers do have a copy of your signature on file, they don’t have a picture or physical description. At first glance, the system does seem prone to abuse. Theoretically, you could sign in under the wrong name in dozens of locations, and vote as many times as you want. An organized campaign could send a small army into polling places with this strategy, possibly swinging the election.
In competitive elections, people on both sides of the aisle get nervous, worrying about the possibility that the other side is going to try to steal the election. During an hour-long campaign session for poll-watchers for the Turner campaign, some of the volunteers were surprised by the lack of ID needed, and a few were worried that the Democrats, who boasted of having a thousand volunteers for the election, might steal the election. One volunteer recalled an odd experience she once had of going to the polls and being told that she had already signed in, suggesting that some ballot stuffing had occurred.
There are major incentives not to cheat the system. The most obvious is the penalty for getting caught, and the way the chances of getting caught increase with each phony paper ballot. Even elections for City Council and State Assembly can be decided by thousands of votes. In order to make a difference, you have to hire a lot of people from the limited pool of those ambitious and/ or passionate enough to risk jail time.
This all increases the possibility of someone being apprehended, which would endanger your entire operation. While the chances of getting caught per individual vote are rather low, it multiplies until an arrest becomes a mathematical certainty. At some point, a poll worker, poll watcher or another voter will realize that someone’s not qualified to vote. There will be a scene if you try signing in as a poll worker’s dead uncle, and a police officer is present in every polling place. A volunteer might be too talkative about what he’s doing. Or someone asked to commit a felony for his political party might get outraged, and run to the authorities.
As a writer, I pride myself on the ability to imagine crazy hypotheticals. So I wondered how you could have increasingly sophisticated fraud. You might have a secret conspiracy recording the names of everyone who is registered to vote and unlikely to go to the polls, to avoid situations in which legitimate voters are told that they had already signed in earlier. The directory would include, but might not be limited to, the recently deceased. You could have a roving team going with individual versions of the list, hitting as many election districts as possible. Each would do this only once per district, so that no one would recognize that they had been there earlier.
Even signing up to vote under entirely fictitious names doesn’t eliminate the risk of recognition. Poll watchers move around, as do various agents of the Board of Elections. So someone might realize that you had voted before elsewhere. Or you might be recognized by someone who knows who you really are. Or who realizes that the address you signed up under is non-existent. And there’s no reason to assume that if dozens of subordinates are asked to do something interesting and illegal, each will be able and willing to stay quiet.
The other major incentive not to cheat the system is that there’s a lot you can do legally, especially if you already have the resources to pull off a highly-organized electoral fraud. As a poll watcher, I was allowed to look at the list of registered voters, which includes party registration, addresses, phone numbers and whether the individual had signed in to vote yet. There’s nothing to stop me from recording the names, phone numbers and addresses of registered Republicans who had yet to cast their ballot. I live in an apartment building, so two hours before the polls closed, I could have knocked on every door of voters I felt were likelier to go for the candidate I support. Another poll watcher could email the necessary information to campaign headquarters, for a final phone/ door-to-door push.
The main reason to modify the laws would be to reduce paranoia, but new changes (insisting that voters show ID, or adding photographs of the voter to the list of registered voters, which already includes a copy of their signature) come with their own pitfalls. Any adjustments will cost money, and there are going to be aspects that will be time-consuming for voters. When there are more reasons to deny anyone the right to vote, there will be more hassles on election day. Certain groups of voters (such as those less likely to carry ID) will be penalized more than others. which can be a non-random effect antithetical to a democracy or to a republic.
There were a few times I knocked on doors, and was told that a registered voter had died. According to voter registration search results, my recently deceased Grandmother is listed as an active voter. Perhaps it should be easier to take deceased voters off of the list of registered voters, although this has to be done in a way that doesn’t allow for sabotage, as it can be an opportunity for someone to falsely disenfranchise living voters.
The current process strikes the right balance of making it easy to cast one vote, while making it difficult to steal an election. There may be some lone nut-cases gaming the system to vote several times, but it’s not enough to make a difference, so state-wide reforms appear unnecessary. Fortunately, voter fraud, at least on a scale large enough to swing a competitive election, isn’t as easy as it looks. Probably.