The price of one bona fide, registered American vote varies from place to place. But it is rarely more than a tank of gas.
Indeed, as a rising furor over voter fraud has prodded some states to mount extensive efforts against illegal voters, election-fraud cases more often involve citizens who sell their votes, usually remarkably cheaply. In West Virginia over the past decade, the cost was as low as $10. Last year in West Memphis, Ark., a statehouse candidate used $2 half-pints of vodka.
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.
Four took place in a traditional heartland of American vote-buying: Appalachia.
“The first votes I ever bought, I paid a half a pint or a pint of liquor, whatever it was, for it. And then as time went on, $5 a vote, $10 a vote. I have paid as high as $800 a vote,” said Kenneth Day, a methamphetamine user and convicted criminal who was involved in a long-running vote-buying operation in eastern Kentucky. Wearing prison orange, he was testifying in a 2010 trial that sent eight others to prison.
“Election after election, day in and day out,” Day told the court. “Every election I ever worked, it went on.” The $800 payment came, he said, when two factions engaged in an impromptu auction for one man’s vote.
In the majority of these six recent cases, the fraud relied on absentee ballots, which can be filled out away from the prying eyes of election officials. The News21 database found 250 cases in which someone was convicted or admitted guilt in a case involving absentee ballots.
In West Memphis last year, prosecutors said Hudson Hallum, a Democrat running for the state legislature, paid absentee voters with cash, whiskey and vodka and at least one with a chicken dinner. Hallum won his primary by eight votes, after taking 85 percent of the absentee ballots, and went on to win the general election.
But it looked fishy, and it didn’t last. Hallum pleaded guilty and resigned his new seat in the state legislature last month. “While I ran for office for all the right reasons,” Hallum, 29, said in a statement, “in order to win the election, I made awful decisions.”
In other cases, it wasn’t even necessary to pay.
In 2010, for instance, Jerry Bowman, the sheriff of Lincoln County, W.Va., simply showed up at people’s homes and told them whom to vote for in local Democratic primary races. In some cases, he just filled out the ballot, according to a “stipulation of facts” that Bowman signed.
Bowman didn’t pay a cent, prosecutors say. Apparently, having the sheriff in one’s home was motivation enough for many voters.
“You can’t go into the voting booth with them, to see how they voted,” said Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney for southern West Virginia. “But in this one, you could sit right at their kitchen table” and be sure, he said.
Bowman was trailing after the polls closed on Election Day but won after absentee ballots poured in. The plan began to unravel when investigators noticed that 100 absentee voters seemed to have the same handwriting.
Bowman pleaded guilty in January. His attorney did not return phone messages.
One recent case of alleged absentee-ballot fraud happened this past summer in Hialeah, Fla., outside Miami. Police say they were trailing a woman suspected of ballot fraud and saw her enter a nursing-home room.
The patient inside was too ill to write, speak or comprehend what was said to her. But somehow, police said, the worker left her room with a completed absentee ballot.
In the worker’s purse, they said, was a business card that hinted at a sideline filling out strangers’ absentee ballots. “When the ballot arrives,” it said in Spanish, “call me.” The worker pleaded not guilty to felony vote fraud. Prosecutors have not said which candidate she was working for.
Absentee voting is allowed in all states, and 27 of them do not require a reason, such as illness or a trip out of state.
Now, just four states — Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have passed an ID requirement that applies to absentee voters. Often, these laws require absentee voters to submit something like a driver’s license number or a photocopy of a license.
Absentee ballots are not the only way to fraudulently win an election.
In Clay County, Ky., the vast fraud operation used poll workers, who told voters to leave their booths after one pass through the ballot. What the voters didn’t know is that there was a “review screen” that would allow them to change their choices.
The poll workers scurried in and did that.
Other fraudsters have used one of the oldest tricks in the book: bribing voters on their way to the polls.
These conspiracies are still probably easier to pull off than voter-impersonation fraud, the kind feared by supporters of voter-ID laws. That’s because the bought voters, in these cases, are still real voters. There are no worries about election workers sniffing out fakes.
But even with that advantage, it’s still not easy to steal an election.
Take Charles Russell, the Kentucky voter who said he sold his vote for $45 in 2010. When Russell got into the voting booth, he realized he couldn’t vote for the man he was supposed to — a candidate for magistrate. Russell didn’t live in the right district.
But he pretended. So afterward, he said, he still received an envelope containing cash.
“You didn’t vote for him?” a prosecutor said, as Russell explained all this in court.
“No,” Russell said.
“But he wouldn’t have known that?”
The candidate, Michael Salyers, testified that he spent close to $500 buying votes. He lost.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.