Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger.org’s political columnist.
That’s what James O’Keefe seemed to be – or claimed to be – that a Vermonter could vote without displaying an official identity document, such as a driver’s license, but could not necessarily be served a drink at the bar without producing a photo ID.
O’Keefe himself, apparently with an ally and definitely with a hidden camera, went to a few Vermont polling places on Primary Day, falsely identified himself with the name of an actual Vermont voter (or former voter, being now dead) and was told he could vote even though he had no ID document with him.
Then he and camera went to a bar, was told he could not buy a drink without a photo ID (he’s young enough for the bartender to require one, and badgered a young woman who was doing her job. Then he pronounced himself outraged.
Let’s calm him down.
The reason some folks – usually those who are younger than some of us – have to show their ID at the saloon is that – believe it or not !– there have been occasions when older teenagers or 20-year-olds plop themselves down on the bar stool and ask for a shot or a beer or both. That’s against the law.
The reason poll workers do not demand an ID is that nobody who is ineligible to vote goes to the polls to try to cast a ballot. Not just nobody in Vermont. Nobody anywhere, at least in the United States of America.
Well, OK. Not quite nobody. But so close to nobody that it might as well be nobody. Despite claims by O’Keefe in his short film for an outfit known as Project Veritas, despite the shrill (and well-funded) insistence of some believers, in Vermont, and indeed in the other 49 states, voter fraud is not a problem.
There are a few cases – very few – of attempts to tamper with elections. But most of the tampering has nothing to do with an ineligible voter trying to cast a ballot. In Troy, N.Y., and East Chicago, Ind., campaign workers were convicted (in Troy, four pleaded guilty) of forging absentee ballots or bribing voters to cast them. A West Virginia sheriff pleaded guilty to stuffing the ballot box with 100 fraudulent absentee ballots. There have been similar cases in rural areas of Alabama, where there have also been allegations that campaign workers “manufactured” ballots and counted them.
Only in one state senate district in Tennessee is it possible – and even there by no means certain – that some fraud was committed by actual human beings walking up to the polls and casting votes even though they were not legal voters in that district.
Vermont is not unusual in not asking for ID at the polls. Most states don’t. That does not mean there is no system to guard against voter fraud. The protection comes not on Election Day, but when voters register.
Elsewhere, voters fraud claims have been wildly overblown. In South Carolina, one official declared that 900 dead people had voted in the last decade. Election officials checked and found a handful of questionable ballots cast, no conclusive evidence of any dead folks voting. In Kansas, the secretary of state complained about 221 reported cases of voter fraud in 10 years. The Wichita Eagle investigated and found that almost all the cases were honest mistakes.
But what about ACORN, the subject of the first expose by O’Keefe, the New Jersey conservative agitator who brings his hidden cameras into various locations? Wasn’t ACORN guilty of voter fraud?
No, it was the victim of registration fraud. Some of its workers – paid piecework for helping register voters – padded their pay by filling out forms for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. ACORN paid the workers, discovered the fraud, and alerted local election officials. But Mickey and Donald never tried to vote.
It’s a big and varied country, so no doubt here and there a person votes where he or she should not. But in almost every case, these are personal errors or, at worst, personal transgressions: Some guy votes in the next town to vote for his brother-in-law. Or maybe against his brother-in-law. But there is zero evidence of concerted conspiracies to flood a polling station with ineligible voters.
No wonder. It would make no sense. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, in some cities campaign workers would round up the very poor, ply them with whiskey, and give them two bucks for their votes. Sometimes the voter would line up with a bandaged hand, claiming to need help filling out the paper ballot. That way the campaign worker could be sure of getting his money’s worth.
But that was before unemployment compensation, food stamps and other income support programs. Nobody needs two bucks enough to risk a five-year prison term. Anyone seeking to put together a vote fraud operation would have to spend thousands of dollars, perhaps tens of thousands, to buy enough fraudulent voters to make a difference.
And to what end? Winning a seat on the select board, the county commission, or even the state legislature? Anyone shrewd enough to put that operation together is smart enough to understand how pointless it would be.
Serious vote fraud these days would require tampering with the election software. That’s not very likely, either; most states and localities have efficient security systems in place. But if someone did want to steal an election, that would be the place to start.
In most states, including Vermont, applicants must provide their driver’s license number, another recognized identification number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number when they register to vote. Secretary of State Jim Condos said the computers in his department “talk to” computers at the Department of Motor Vehicles to confirm that the applicant is “a person, not a dog.”
Non-citizens, to be sure, can get a driver’s license. But non-citizens cannot, without lying, check the very visible box on the voter registration form requiring the applicant to “swear or affirm” that he or she is at least 18 years old, a resident of Vermont, and a citizen of the United States.
Fraudulently claiming citizenship would presumably be some kind of legal offense, possibly even perjury. The statute (17 VSA 2101) does not specify what the offense would be, and Condos said he wasn’t sure because to his knowledge no one has ever suggested – much less alleged – that any non-citizen ever tried to vote in this state.
In fact, he knew of only one case of apparent voter fraud: “Mr. O’Keefe, when he was doing his video.”