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This year the Republicans are rolling out one of their oldest and most misleading charges: that Democrats and their supporters are planning to flood the polls with illegal voters. Although the GOP first raised a hue and cry against Democratic voter fraud more than 40 years ago they have failed to turn up any credible evidence to support their allegations. The purpose of such charges has been to discredit their Democratic opponents and discourage minorities and poor people from voting.
In the 1964 presidential contest between Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater, Republicans launched “Operation Eagle Eye,” ostensibly to guard against illegal voters. The party planned to station 100,000 “eagle eyes” at polling places across America to spot fraudulent voters. In fact, this “ballot security” operation was targeted at minority neighborhoods in 36 cities and circulated handbills which warned that authorities could arrest voters who had an outstanding parking ticket or a traffic violation. Operation Eagle Eye turned up not a single fraudulent voter and had little impact Johnson’s landslide victory.
During the next twenty years similar ballot security operations failed to uncover voter fraud, but continued efforts to discourage voting by Democratic-leaning groups. This practice of “voter suppression” became so notorious that in response to a 1986 lawsuit file by Democrats the National Republican Party agreed to a consent decree in federal court that prohibited the party from engaging in anti-fraud activities that targeted minority voters. Of course, they could still level charges of voter fraud against Democrats and liberal groups.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to examine first-hand charges of voter fraud, when Republican gubernatorial candidate for governor of Maryland Ellen Sauerbrey alleged that fraudulent votes cast by dead people, prison inmates, and unregistered persons accounted for the 5,993 vote victory of Democrat Parris Glendening. As the state of Maryland’s consultant on voting rights I was asked by Attorney General Joseph Curran to determine whether there was any truth to Sauerbrey’s claims.
My own work uncovered some unintentional errors by election officials, but not a single fraudulent vote among the 1.4 million ballots cast in the election. Likewise several weeks of judicial discovery and a trial in State District Court failed to uncover any illegal voters. The trial judge Raymond G. Thieme, who said in open court that he voted for Sauerbrey, tossed out her lawsuit. The case reached comic opera proportions when several allegedly dead voters began talking, including some who said they voted for Ms. Sauerbrey.
The administration of George W. Bush has made the discovery and prosecution of voter fraud a top priority. But its labors uncovered a molehill not a mountain of fraud. From 2002 to 2007 the federal government has charged only 120 persons nationwide with voter fraud. These were all isolated cases against single individuals or small groups involved with local contests. Not single case implicated the Democratic or Republican parties or affiliated groups in efforts to influence the outcome of statewide, congressional, senatorial, or presidential elections.
In the current campaign Republicans have charged that ACORN, a liberal community organizing group, has committed fraud in its efforts to register new voters nationwide. In an extraordinary fit of hyperbole, John McCain said in the third presidential debate that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
ACORN has been registering voters for many years. This year alone it registered some 1.3 million voters. Inevitably some forms will be false or inaccurate. But the submission of such forms only becomes voter fraud if efforts are made to cast votes based on fraudulent registrations.
Critics have derided ACORN for submitting registration forms in the names of Disney characters or Dallas Cowboy players. But does anyone seriously believe that the organization is planning to sneak voters into the polls under the name of Mickey Mouse or Tony Romo? A bipartisan report prepared for President Bush’s Election Assistance Commission in 2007 examined the alleged link between voter registration and electoral fraud. It concluded that “false registration forms have not resulted in polling place fraud.”
In a properly functioning democracy all votes must be fully and fairly counted. But the last thing that the American people need in the final days of this crucial presidential election is another debate over phony charges of voter fraud.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN, a professor of history at American University, has been an expert witness in more than 75 voting rights cases and was an advisor to the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III. He is the author of White Protestant Nation.