Voter fraud happens. It might not be widespread enough to decide the outcome of an election, but that doesn't mean we can't talk seriously about preventing it.
Unfortunately, the laws that have been proposed to deal with voter fraud in the past several years -- which focus on requiring voters to show identification at the polls -- aren't likely to do much for the integrity of elections. These restrictions could even prove counterproductive, preventing citizens from exercising their right to cast a vote. There's little evidence of the fraud that voter I.D. laws are designed to prevent: an impostor arriving at the polls pretending to be a registered voter.
The voter fraud that is a real problem is more mundane. Voters sometimes mail in absentee ballots for their relatives who have moved to another state, or they cast a second ballot in the state where they own a vacation home. Dealing with these problems doesn't have to make voting more confusing and time-consuming. Indeed, the policies that could actually limit voter fraud are often the same that will make voting easier. Giving poll workers and voters what they need to keep the rolls up to date makes for a smoother election process and reduces errors and oversights.
"It's the great irony of this whole debate," says Barry Burden, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's that the places where we're focusing to try to improve security are the places where security least needs improvement."
Burden gives the example of same-day registration. When voters are allowed to register at a polling place on Election Day, they can complete the entire process under the supervision of state election workers. They don't have to rely on political parties, unions or third-party organizations to submit their paperwork. Those groups could, theoretically, be tempted to falsify registrations, but they will have less of an opportunity if more people register directly at the polls.
In Georgia, for example, the secretary of state began investigating a group called the New Georgia Project, believing that it had submitted several dozen fraudulent registrations. The group's goal was to register more black voters, but now some 40,000 registrations it submitted to the state have not been processed. Whatever actually happened with those registrations, same-day registration would not only put to rest any worries about fraud, but would also make the task of organizing a registration drive much simpler. Both sides in the dispute would have something to gain.
Same-day registration also makes it easier voters to keep their information current in the state's database. Most voters who take advantage of same-day registration do so because their name or address has changed, not because they're registering for the first time. An entry that's out of date could create an opportunity for an impostor to vote in another person's name.
"Accurate rolls help keep costs down, they help provide for a cleaner administration process, and they minimize security problems," Burden said.
Another measure that some states have taken is to collate voter registration databases with those in other states and with databases of driver's licenses and vital statistics, so that state boards of elections will know when a voter moves out or passes away. In the last two years, 11 states and the District of Columbia have joined a consortium to compare records and save money.
Registering in voting in two states is "the most common kind of fraud that I'm aware of," said Wendy Underhill, of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some people might not be satisfied with simple measures like these to prevent voter fraud, and they might want everyone who votes to show identification. Although a comprehensive new report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that voter I.D. laws in Kansas and Tennessee reduced turnout by a few percentage points, it is possible to require voter I.D. without keeping people away from the polls.
Under one proposal, poll workers could check driver's license photos digitally if a voter doesn't bring I.D., and they could photograph and obtain an affidavit from any voters who don't have a driver's license photo on file. The photographs would make it nearly impossible for an impostor to vote in another person's name without being caught.
Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller proposed this idea two years ago. The state legislature didn't take it up, because lawmakers didn't think voter impersonation was a problem that needed to be solved.
"The public obviously feels very strongly that we need some form of visual verification at the polling places," said Miller, a Democrat who is now running for state attorney general. "This was a common-sense solution that would have provided the same safeguard, but doing it in a way that wouldn't have disenfranchised a single voter."
He said that the costs of his proposal would've been minimal, and that providing poll workers with laptops and access to the driver's license data would be a good idea anyway.
Miller is not shy about taking on voter fraud. He was the official who brought charges against Acorn, the activist group, in 2009.
Perhaps conservatives elsewhere in the country will pay attention to his ideas on running elections -- ideas everyone can believe in.