Hans von Spakovsky turns absentee ballot fraud into something it isn’t

Hans von Spakovsky, former Bush-appointee to the Federal Elections Commission and current legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is feeling some kind of way about the case of Olivia Reynolds. Reynolds, a campaign worker for a city commissioner’s race in Alabama, was convicted of 24 counts of election fraud this week after her candidate, Amos Newsome, won 119 of 124 absentee ballots despite only receiving 41 percent of the in-person vote, on his way to a 14-vote victory.

Two co-defendants were also convicted in the case.

The details of the case are pretty straightforward and very damning. As Spakovsky, writing with Heritage colleague Jason Snead, summarized in the Daily Signal:

Investigators found that the defendants had fraudulently applied for and submitted absentee ballots for registered voters.

During Reynolds’ trial, it was revealed that she went even further.

Witnesses testified that she ordered them to vote for Newsome. Four witnesses confirmed they had done so even though they intended to vote against him. In some cases, Reynolds illegally filled out part or all of voters’ ballots for them. In the course of the trial, some voters discovered their ballots had evidently been cast for Newsome, even though they had never voted for him.

Alabama law requires that absentee votes must be observed by two witnesses, to safeguard against fraud. But the case reveals how easy it is to circumvent that requirement – and just how insecure absentee ballots are.

As Spakovsky and Snead quipped, “The verdict will only come as a shock to those who still insist that voter fraud simply doesn’t exist in the U.S.”

Except that isn’t what voting rights advocates are saying. At all. Yeah, Reynolds’ and her co-defendants broke the law, and were right to be prosecuted (hey, the system works!), but in all of these contrived debates over restricting ballot access for the sake of election integrity, absentee voting practically never comes up. This is because the policy solution most often proposed, ID requirements, does nothing to police the absentee voting process. Not even the strictest ID requirement could have prevented the kind of fraud for which Olivia Reynolds was just convicted. And the kind of fraud it could theoretically prevent, voter impersonation, is just that: theoretical. That kind of fraud is so rare as to be statistically nonexistent, and Reynolds’s case doesn’t change that.

Hans von Spakovsky, via LBJ Foundation / Flickr

Hans von Spakovsky, via LBJ Foundation / Flickr

And yet cases like Reynolds’s are the kinds of cases Spakovsky is relying on to defend voter ID laws in court. Keep in mind that since restrictions to ballot access — particularly photo ID requirements — have racially disproportionate effects, those who defend them have to show a compelling state interest that overrides the interest of racial equality. In other words, in order to defend a voter ID law, you have to show that it will actually prevent voter fraud. And if all you look at is voter impersonation, you can’t make that claim with any statistical magnitude.

But by lumping in absentee ballot fraud with in-person voter fraud, Spakovsky is trying to create a compelling state interest where none exists. You can find as many cases of absentee fraud as you like; you still haven’t shown me that there’s any justification for requiring people to pull out a drivers license they don’t have when they show up to vote.

Then again, Spakovsky also thinks we should require photo ID for absentee voting, which is somehow more problematic than requiring it for in-person voting. Setting aside for the moment that many of the reasons for voting absentee — old age or disability, for example — make one less likely to have a photo ID like a drivers license in the first place, it is practically impossible to implement a photo ID requirement for absentee voting that is in any way verifiable. As Spakovsky notes, Alabama law already required that absentee ballots be filled out with two witnesses present in order to prevent fraud. If that fail-safe didn’t work, how is requiring a photo ID — which would presumably be photocopied and mailed in with the ballot — going to provide any extra protection?

Re-run the Reynolds case with a photo ID requirement for absentee voting: She can still tell people to vote for someone else. She can still fill out their ballots. She can still do all of these things with two witnesses present. The only way that her crime really could have been prevented is to get rid of absentee voting altogether; if that’s Spakovsky’s end game, then fine. But he should put his cards on the table if that’s the case.

At the end of the day, election fraud does exist on the margins. But that’s the thing: they’re on the margins. The effort and organization it would take to swing a race larger than one for city commissioner is too big to not be caught, and the level of restriction it would take to completely stamp out fraud at such a low level is too great to be worthwhile. Spakovsky has made a career out of exploiting this tradeoff, feigning outrage over statistically negligible cases of fraud — again, on the margins — for the purpose of disenfranchising millions of eligible voters.

After all, these cases of election fraud almost exclusively occur in local races, where it doesn’t take too many votes to swing an election. If you want to manipulate the outcome of a federal election, you need to pass a voter ID law; that’s how you keep five percent of eligible, not-fraudulent voters from casting ballots.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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10 Responses to “Hans von Spakovsky turns absentee ballot fraud into something it isn’t”

  1. Bill_Perdue says:

    I don’t agree with the idea that reforms are the way to get change. They’re not. Voting does not produce change. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.

    “expanding ballot access is a step in getting from point a to point b re: greater economic equality” is not a fact. Unionization and militant fights for a better living by workers are the way to get to economic and political equality.

    Mass movements do produce change and that’s the record of history from Concord and Lexington to the fight for 15.

  2. Jon Green says:

    The author there agrees with you that economic and political democratization are linked, but his thesis is that by since non-voters are disproportionately lower-income, if they voted then representatives would respond.

    Now, no one is saying that they should just wake up tomorrow and decide to vote, or vote for a particular candidate. All the author is saying, and I agree, is that if the distribution of wealth among America’s voters actually looked like the distribution of wealth in the American populace, our politics might look different. And that being the case, expanding ballot access is a step in getting from point a to point b re: greater economic equality.

    That’s the point I was hoping you’d engage with, and I’m not sure you did.

  3. Indigo says:

    I had to puzzle over this for a while. Then I got it! The arguments about voter fraud are based on misleading evidence. I see. But that’s American jurisprudence all over the place, isn’t it? And the existing practice in the US Congress. Without misleading testimony, we would not have gone off on an adventure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iran since they didn’t exist and could only have been fabricated by misrepresentation, hype, and a compliant media that follows the propaganda criteria. There’s the issue [pace, Bill_Perdue], fabricated events and evidence fed to a compliant media. We need to shake up journalism, uncover their advertising biases, and explode the propaganda stereotypes that drive their presentations (one can hardly call them “news” programs).
    [Disclaimer: except for David Muir who wears blue jeans perfectly.]

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  5. Bill_Perdue says:

    The battle for voting rights has always been one of the key struggles waged by working people, women and people of color against the rich and the parties they own, the Democrats and the Republicans.

    The battle for real political democracy can’t be divorced from the the battle for economic democracy – they’re fundamentally interconnected. So much so that real political democracy, in the absence of economic democracy – economic control of the commanding heights of the economy by working people – is just not possible. The growing realization of that fact is creating the opening to end the stranglehold of the rich and the parties they own, the Democrats and Republicans.

    The rule of the wealthy is a fact of life and it can’t be ended by attempts at reform. The system is rigged against reforms and they’re only successful when immensely powerful and politically independent movements compel change.

    Votes don’t change policy and never have – at best they reflect the victories of mass movements. That was the case with the suffragists, the CIO, the black nationalist movement and the antiwar movement. However, virtually all the reforms won in the last century including Medicare and Social Security are under heavy attack and have been eroded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Now the global fight is against imposed austerity.

    What will compel change is the deep and now virtually permanent radicalization of working people, women, people of color and others. In response to decades pf unlimited class warfare against us by Democrats and Republicans the left will move to organize mass, politically independent and very militant movements we’ll utilize a combination of demonstrations and mobilizations combined with electoral work to compel change, or more likely, to create our own governments to enact change.

  6. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    Even better: a federal mandate that people enrolled in Medicaid and SNAP get a free photo-ID that is valid as a Voter ID.

    Good for another 180 degrees of head spinning. With luck, it’ll pop right off.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    Voting does not change policy and that’s a fact.

    Electoral activity is a dead-end unless it’s combined with a strategy to advance the fights against wars of aggression, racism and imposed austerity.

  8. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    And two witnesses. The ballot is secret so they should not be allowed to see haw the person was voting. In addition, what is to stop the witnesses from being part of the republican voter fraud scheme.

  9. HKDaniel says:

    Wait 5 minutes and ask these same Voter ID advocates about a mandatory national ID card and watch them spin 180 degrees.

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