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A vast voter fraud conspiracy?

By Brendan Nyhan (brendan@spinsanity.org)
October 24, 2002

As the November election draws near, Republican candidates, operatives and conservative pundits are spinning isolated incidents of alleged voter fraud into charges of massive election-stealing conspiracies.

In South Dakota, a controversy over allegedly fraudulent voter registrations and absentee ballot applications in and around Indian reservations has been raging for almost two weeks. Tagged initially with the phrase "massive voter fraud" in a local TV news report and a Rapid City Journal headline, the story spread rapidly through the national conservative media before the facts were established. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin parroted the "massive" charge, while Rush Limbaugh went even further, suggesting with his usual subtlety that Democrats are trying to steal the election.

The facts are less sensational. One man who was working for the United Sioux Tribes faces forgery charges for submitting phony voter registration cards, and a contractor working for the Democratic coordinated campaign is also under investigation for alleged discrepancies in voting documents she submitted. Approximately 400 questionable voting documents have been identified, but most appear to be linked to the two people in question.

Fraud is a very serious charge, and any verified cases should be prosecuted. It is a crime with democratic consequences -- each invalid ballot that is accepted dilutes the value of those that were legally cast. But there's simply no evidence that the scope of fraud extends beyond the individuals under scrutiny. As a result, Mark Barnett, a Republican who is the Attorney General of South Dakota and source of the original stories in the local press, told the Argus Leader, "I'm still only aware of two cases where criminal law may have been violated, and you've heard about those." He added, "I just don't want the suggestion out there that there is widespread fraud when we don't have any evidence of that."

Nonetheless, Republican US Senate candidate John Thune has issued a cheap shot against his opponent, Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D. During a recent debate, Thune said that Johnson must "come clean about what [his] involvement is with voter fraud in western South Dakota." If Thune had any evidence of Johnson's involvement, however, he wouldn't be using loaded statements in place of substantive allegations, and he wouldn't be demanding laundry lists of documents without a substantive pretext (see Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo for the full list). As Johnson pointed out after the debate, Barnett has stated that Johnson's campaign and the state Democratic Party are not subjects of the investigation.

Soon after the South Dakota controversy broke out, another charge was manufactured into a national story. As we have shown, an imprecisely worded fundraising appeal for a planned Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) voter registration project in Minnesota was falsely alleged to be a plan to commit voter fraud by bringing in out-of-state residents to vote for Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. The Taxpayers League of Minnesota issued a press release denouncing this so-called plan. From there, it was picked up by the Drudge Report and then repeated by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Most recently, a high-ranking Republican official in Arkansas picked up this theme, irresponsibly suggesting a national Democratic plan to steal the election. A story in the Washington Times Wednesday describes charges of attempted fraud in the state, but so far the only hard evidence is a statement by the executive director of the Arkansas Democratic Party that two teenagers who were hired to register voters copied names from the phone book, plus a handful of fraudulent registrations Republicans claim to have identified (including "[a]t least six dead people"). On that basis, Marty Ryall, Arkansas GOP chairman, said, "It makes me wonder, that if you have the Democratic Party behind voter fraud in South Dakota, and Arkansas is a key race, is this a national effort by the Democratic Party to steal elections and steal the Senate?"

Again, there's no question that incidents of fraud are taking place and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But the only "national effort" that's clear right now is the attempt by conservatives to manufacture a vast Democratic voting fraud conspiracy without evidence that one exists.

Update 10/24/02 1:17 PM EST: More evidence of potentially bogus accusations of widespread voter fraud -- USA Today is reporting that "early looks" by state voting officials at a Republican Party list of 3,273 people who allegedly voted more than once in 2000 "have found little evidence of multiple voting":

Connecticut, the first state to check the GOP's multiple-voting data, found it "highly flawed."
Officials said that at least 51 of 54 names listed as voting both in Connecticut and elsewhere were erroneous.
Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat, called the list "a deliberate attempt to distract election officials across the country from their responsibility to encourage voter participation."
In North Carolina, officials found that the first name on the double-voting list was that of state Rep. Martha Alexander, a Democrat who chairs the General Assembly's panel on election laws. "It's got to be two people with the same name and birth date," said Gary Bartlett, director of the state Board of Elections.
Shad Balch, a spokesman for California Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, said, "It looks like we're going to be able to refute their claims."

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Related links:
-Feeding frenzy over DSA plan to register voters (Bryan Keefer, 10/18/02)
-Drudge falsely accuses socialists of illegal voting activity (Bryan Keefer, 10/16/02)

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