By November 4th, I suspect that a lot of people in America are going to be heartily sick of hearing about voter fraud.
Over the past week, the spectre of widespread voter fraud has been relentlessly pursued by various factions, most of them aligned on the Republican side of the bitterly divided 2-horse American political system.
So, do we really need UN Election monitors at the polls? Will this election be decided by shadowy “leftist” groups who manage to nefariously concoct millions of fake ballots nationwide?
In a word, no.
Most of the current allegations are centered around ACORN, an activist group who run voter-recruitment drives across the US. ACORN’s fundamental problem lies in their operational methods – they pay canvassers by the number of registration forms they bring in.
Obviously, for some canvassers, this offers a temptation – fill in a few extra forms with fake names, and earn some extra cash. ACORN claims that they try to vet these forms, but it’s almost certain that their vetting procedures can’t detect every fraudulent registration.
But, ultimately, none of this actually matters.
Fake names on the electoral register do not automatically mean that fraudulent votes will be cast. In actual fact, it’s highly unlikely that they would be, for a very simple reason.
Vote fraud is a felony, and in order to commit it (and get away with it) on the scale needed to tip an election, you’d need hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes.
Logistically, any one fraudulent voter is unlikely to be able to vote more than 4 or 5 times in one day. They’d need to cast each vote at a different polling place (lest they were recognised casting a second ballot), and there aren’t that many polling places.
This means you’d need, at absolute minimum, 20,000 people in a state willing to risk multiple Felony conviction for their candidate. Now, it could be argued that the fake registrations some ACORN canvassers are turning in can also lead to a felony conviction (they have in the past), but the risk/reward dynamic is very different there – the (often fairly poor) canvassers are trading off the risk of getting caught against the reward of extra money.
Fraudulent ballot-casters would be extremely unlikely to be paid for their efforts, unless there was such a systemic vote-rigging operation in place that it had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off its fake voters. Without leaving a paper trail.
So where, exactly, are you going to find tens of thousands of people to participate, without reward, in what would be the greatest group-felony in history?
It’s certainly not going to be the one-size-fits-all “illegal immigrant” boogeyman.
I can tell you, as a legal alien in the US, that any felony activity will see a foreigner (whether here legally or otherwise) deported and refused entry for at least 10 years. Given that people are here because they have jobs, friends, families and partners, the risk of being torn away from one’s entire life is not worth risking for any kind of political conviction. Those “illegals” who commit crimes are a minority, and sure, some of them might crawl across a desert and sneak over the border again, but you’re unlikely to find 20,000 such people per state.
All in all, then, the existence of an enormous, rich, shadowy “underground vote-fraud cartel” seems highly, laughably unlikely. It seems even more unlikely, given that the allegations are all focussed on fake Democratic registrations, at a time when the Democratic candidate is showing a significant lead in every poll, and has been for weeks.
So, what’s with all the “voter fraud” news stories?
I believe that the GOP is fighting two fronts here.
On the one hand, casting doubt over millions of new-voter registrations in the lead up to election day could gum up the works enough that sizable numbers of voters aren’t allowed to cast their ballot.
Just this week in Ohio, it’s been ruled that the state must immediately enact a new system to check new voter registrations, of which there have been 660,000 this year. If it proves impossible to do this, it’s possible (and no-one really knows how likely) that many of those voters could be turned away on November 4th, a useful result for the Republicans, who are trailing slightly in a close race in that state.
Given the current state-of-play in this race, though, I doubt this would be enough to ensure a Republican victory on a national scale. McCain is fighting a rearguard action in several previously-safe GOP states, and has already pulled out of states which were once considered “swing”. Based on current numbers, even victories in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, as well as too-close-to-call North Carolina would still leave him well short of 270 electoral votes. He’d need to turn around Nevada, North Dakota, Missouri and then erase a 5% poll lead in Colorado to clinch the presidency.
It’s faintly possible, at an extreme long-shot, but it’s a hell of a lot of work to do in just two weeks across the entire Union, at a time when McCain is completely locked out of the chief dynamic of the race.
Which is why I believe that the RNC has another reason for pushing the ACORN-baiting hard, and pushing it now.
It’s all about November 5th, and the days that follow.
One thing that sustained Democrats’ morale through their defeats in both 2000 and 2004 was the notion that their candidate had been “robbed” by partisan dabbling in the vote-counting. Whether it was Florida for Gore, or Ohio for Kerry, the popular Democratic narrative in both elections was that voter-disenfranchisement had led to their unfair defeat.
The rights and wrongs of either side’s claims in these matters are irrelevant. What was important was the story which could bring people together; hold them in, and keep them believing in their chosen party. In some ways, I think this was dangerous – the possibility of an Ohio miscount for Kerry overshadowed the fundamental problems with the candidate (that he was about as charismatic as a park bench), and probably held the Democrats back from a more careful, honest re-examination of their message and their electoral strategy.
Regardless, it’s ancient history now, but it’s a useful and informative lesson for GOP strategists who must be, at the very least, making contingency plans for a 2008 presidential defeat.
The prospect of a President Obama is particularly dangerous for the GOP, since his entire political style is one of moderation, consideration and pragmatism.
The Obama I’ve seen campaign seems to be (for all that this might make some more-liberal Americans wince) something of a centrist, and if he wins, and assumes the presidency with the same measured approach, it’s possible that he could win over some of the flagging moderate GOP base who are deeply tired of the reckless abandonment of Fiscal Conservatism, and the over-pandering to the far-right which have marked the Bush years.
A President Obama, in other words, could cause a small but significant shift in the two-party power balance. It’s not that likely – Americans support their Party the same way they support their Baseball team – through any number of missteps, mistakes and bad performances. Besides, whoever the next President is, his primary job is going to be keeping a sinking ship afloat, leaving scant time and resources for large-scale, political-landscape-altering changes.
But if you’re a GOP strategist looking 4, 8, 12 or 20 years out, you’ve got to be considering the possibility, and preparing for it by sowing the seeds of doubt and mistrust. It’s a lot easier to pull your party (or your sports team) together behind a “we did great, but the other guy cheated” message than a “we sucked” message.
A quick note: I’m a Brit who’s been living in the US for 4 years and watching this election cycle with more than a little bemusement. I’m a taxpayer who’s not eligible to vote, which means I’m viewing the whole electoral process from a weird, bystander position. Whilst I personally believe that Obama is the better candidate for President in this race, the intent of the above isn’t to lay out a partisan case, but more to examine the meta-narrative behind this particular piece of the campaign cycle. As with many things in life, the subtle details beneath the “surface story” are often more interesting than the story itself.