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Ohio GOP playing voter fraud card, but lacks facts to trump

Stephen Majors

COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Republican lawsuits and rhetoric are any indication, the specter of voting fraud is looming large over the November election.

A weeklong period in which new voters can register and immediately cast a ballot? Ripe for voting fraud. The state’s method of verifying voter registration information? Insufficient to prevent voter fraud.

“Voter fraud” was a buzz phrase for the Ohio GOP when it pushed voter identification requirements through the state Legislature in 2005. It’s now a driving factor behind a flurry of GOP lawsuits leveled against Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, seeking either to restrict early voting or mandate how voter information should be checked.

But do the arguments come with supporting evidence that voter fraud is prominent, or that the current election system isn’t catching it when it does happen? No.

Voter fraud is not a widely studied phenomenon, but the vast majority who have studied allegations say that it’s extremely rare.

“There’s a lot more rhetoric than reality when it comes to actual voter fraud,” said Dan Tokaji, an elections law expert at Ohio State University. “There’s this public perception that voter fraud is common, when the reality is that it’s quite rare.”

A 2005 report by the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio found that of about 9 million votes cast in the state from 2002-2004, there were four fraudulent ballots. The data was collected from interviews with all 88 county boards of elections.

“Voter fraud” is often construed to include fraudulent registrations turned in by activist voter registration groups. Most infamously, names like Jive Turkey, Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy showed up in a 2004 registration drive and were cited by GOP lawmakers as demonstrating the pressing need to employ anti-fraud measures, such as requiring voter ID.

The GOP often points to groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which have routinely been accused of fraud and are currently under investigation in Cuyahoga County and across the country. ACORN said last Wednesday that it can’t possibly make sure that all the registrations it turns in are valid.

But this is not voter fraud; it’s voter registration fraud. The two are not the same. Jive Turkey isn’t showing up at the polls asking for a ballot.

This type of voter fraud happens when an unqualified voter actually casts a ballot in an election. This type of activity is extremely rare, says a 2007 report by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case on Indiana’s law requiring a photo ID at the polls, the state could not present one example of a voter going to the polls and pretending to be someone he or she was not, Tokaji said. The court upheld the state law, despite the lack of evidence.

People attempting to commit voter fraud in Ohio’s November election would have to impersonate someone they’re not, and do so despite voter identification requirements. Or they must register under a false Ohio name and address and have the ID to back it up.

Registrations are put into a statewide database and matched against information from the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration, making voter fraud quite difficult. The system also checks for duplicate registrations.

Additionally, as the Brennan Center report notes, the consequences of getting caught for voter fraud in a federal election — five years in prison and a $10,000 fine — are probably not worth the reward: one vote.

When Ohio Republicans sought, unsuccessfully, to close a weeklong window that ended Oct. 6 in which Ohioans could register and immediately cast a ballot, the main argument was that Ohio law did not permit same-day registration and voting. But a secondary argument was that the process would make it too easy to commit voting fraud because voters could cast ballots before having their registration information verified.

That window was viewed as a benefit to Democrat Barack Obama, as the campaign and outside groups transported college students, low-income voters, the homeless and minorities to the polls.

Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer last Thursday requested registration records for all 302 people who registered and voted on the same day in the county. Greene County is home to five colleges and universities, including two historically black colleges.

Democrats were outraged, calling the tactic pure voter intimidation. Fischer withdrew the request last Friday, citing a federal court decision requiring Brunner to match registration records with data from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration and provide any mismatches to counties.

But Brunner successfully appealed the ruling on the case, which was brought by the Ohio GOP, arguing that the state was already performing the matches, and that federal law provides no requirement for what to do if there’s a mismatch. Fischer could not be reached for comment after the appellate court ruling was issued last Friday.

Ohio Republicans had sued because they say there aren’t proper safeguards in place to make sure people aren’t casting votes using false registration information.

(Associated Press)