Cover Story

Ballot boxing

"Ballot boxing" Continued...

Issue: "Who will vote?," April 21, 2012

These days, South Carolina election officials are dealing with another issue: reports of more than 900 "dead voters." State DMV director Kevin Shwedo compared voter rolls from the state election commission (showing when someone last voted) to death records from the Social Security Administration and the state's vital statistics office. The results: Shwedo says he found 956 names listed as voting after their dates of death.

Whitmire-spokesman for the election commission-says the office investigated 207 of those votes and found no cases of voter fraud. Most involved clerical errors by poll managers. (For example, when John Doe Jr. showed up to vote, poll workers marked John Doe Sr., who was dead.)

But if the errors were clerical, they were also instructive about the challenges of keeping accurate voting rolls: Whitmire says the DMV identified some 30,000 deceased people on the state election commission voter rolls. He says that's because the DMV has access to more information, including Social Security records that the commission can't access. He says his office plans to push for legislation that would give it access to the same data.

In the meantime, other states face challenges with bloated or errant voting rolls. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gesslar reported last March that his department found nearly 12,000 non-citizens registered to vote in the state. Nearly 5,000 of those voted in the 2010 general elections, he said.

The National Voter Registration Act calls for states to clean voting rolls and purge dead or ineligible voters. But former DOJ attorney J. Christian Adams testified in 2010 that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes advised attorneys in the civil-rights division that they wouldn't be enforcing the statutes, saying it wouldn't help with "increasing voter turnout." (Adams resigned from DOJ, protesting the department's policies.)

John Fund-author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy-says that messy voter rolls open the potential for fraud. He advocates Voter ID laws as a protection against fraud, but also notes that absentee ballots-like the ones that Sowers from Mississippi used-represent a major vulnerability.

Since most states don't require photo ID for absentee ballots, the weakness remains in the system. Fund says that since Republican lawmakers have constituencies that often favor absentee ballots, they often downplay serious abuses of mail-in ballots.

And there's another vulnerability in the system: Couldn't voters beat Voter ID laws by producing fake IDs? Since voter impersonation at polls is rare, it seems unlikely that a large group of voters would undertake a concerted effort to cheat at the polls.

But security expert Steve Williams says it's not impossible. The CEO of Intellicheck Mobilisa-a Washington-based security firm that specializes in identity and wireless security systems-says "millions" of fake IDs float around the United States already. "With today's technology, you can go to Walmart, buy a printer, download a program, and make a pretty good fake ID," he said. With Photoshop and heavy cardstock, he adds: "You can probably make a driver's license in about 30 seconds."

Many states-including South Carolina-don't have plans to use scanners to spot fake IDs. Williams thinks that's a mistake: "Without technology, I would gamble that you would be defeated."

Reasonable protection

By La Shawn Barber

Associated Press photo

Blacks after the Civil War tended to vote for Republicans, the party that had freed slaves and pushed civil-rights laws. Democrats in South Carolina discouraged black voting through devices like the eight-box ballot system, an indirect literacy test that required separate boxes for separate offices, with boxes periodically shuffled. If the voter inserted his ballot for senator in the governor ballot box, for example, the vote for senator was thrown out.

Such a system was confusing to illiterate and undereducated post-slavery blacks (and poor whites). Lawmakers also disenfranchised voters with polls taxes, direct literacy tests, and intimidation of various kinds. Voters had to read (and sometimes write) a section of the state Constitution, or to understand it to the satisfaction of the election official. When other discouragements failed, violence came into play.

Now to present-day South Carolina, where any citizen qualified to vote may vote. The State Election Commission reported that close to 240,000 active and inactive voters lacked a photo ID, but a DMV analysis of the data revealed that 207,000 of those voters no longer lived in the state, had allowed their IDs to expire, likely had IDs that didn't match voter records, or were dead.

The real percentage of voters who would need to get a new ID: 1.2 percent. A person who is poor in the true sense of the word can still obtain a state-issued photo ID at no cost. Some have complications of the kind Jamie Dean reports, but even residents without such ID can cast provisional ballots and confirm their identity at a later date before the results are certified.

Two points worth remembering: First, although it's been only 50 years or so since some states required blacks to enter through the back door and sit at the back of the bus, those times might as well be ancient history, given the astounding racial progress America has made. We've come a long, long way. The most pressing problem facing blacks in America isn't racism, institutional or otherwise. It's family instability.

Second, let's examine the insinuation that minorities, the poor, or the elderly are too lazy, stupid, or afraid to obey a common-sense, nondiscriminatory law that applies to everyone. That is an insult to the memory of people once faced with real intimidation.

-La Shawn Barber is a journalist best known for her blog, La Shawn Barber's Corner

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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