At the high end, corrupt candidates in Clay County, Ky., once paid $100. But that was probably too much: It attracted one woman who already had sold her vote. The man who bought it first was outraged, and he beat up the man who bought it second.
It may still be possible to steal an American election, if you know the right way to go about it. Recent court cases, from Appalachia to the Miami suburbs, have revealed the tricks of an underground trade: Conspirators allegedly bought off absentee voters, faked absentee ballots, and bribed people heading to the polls to vote one way or another.
What they didn’t do, for the most part, was send people into voting booths pretending to be somebody else. That little-used tactic has been targeted by new voter-ID laws, including the one in Pennsylvania, which will face a crucial legal test Tuesday.
In real life, recent fraudsters tended not to bother with impersonating voters at the polls. Instead, they often found real voters to do their bidding.
“I was in town one day at a local convenience store, and someone asked me if I wanted to make a little money on that day,” Charles Russell of Jackson, Ky., testified about how he agreed to sell his vote in a local primary election in 2010. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Russell was eventually promised $45 and given a slip of paper with names.
Voter fraud, by any method, is still rare. A study by News21 — a consortium of journalism schools — found 867 cases since 2000 in which someone had admitted guilt or been convicted of a voter-fraud offense. That was out of about 146 million registered voters.
But some kinds of fraud seem rarer than others. Just seven of these cases involved “voter impersonation” at the polls.
Still, nine states have passed strict laws that require photo identification to vote. Four of the measures are held up by legal challenges, including the one in Pennsylvania. A state judge is expected to rule Tuesday on its fate. Supporters say these laws are a good idea, even if they might not have stopped much recent large-scale fraud.
“If we can bring an additional layer of reasonable security measures that most people want, then why wouldn’t we do it?” said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of a Houston-based group called True the Vote. Her group has tried to find people using absentee ballots to vote in two states. “It is hard to quantify the scope of the problem [of voter impersonation], because our system is not designed to detect it.”
In the past three years, six legal cases have laid out, step by step, ways that elections can be stolen. All involved local races, for positions such as magistrate, county clerk, mayor and state representative.