Humbug Square - Voter fraud made easy

New Georgia law widens door to absentee ballot chicanery

Once upon a time, one of America's top election officials issued a warning about the dangers of absentee ballot voter fraud, which is the type of fraud that the new version of the Georgia voter law makes easier.

"As more and more states have relaxed their rules for casting mail-in ballots, absentee ballots have become 'the tool of choice for those who are engaging in election fraud,'" wrote the official who's now an appointee to the Federal Election Commission. "Absentee ballots also make vote buying easier because buyers can make sure that the votes 'stay bought.'"

Now, this wasn't some whiny Atlanta liberal criticizing the revised version of Georgia's voter ID bill, which the Republicans rammed through the General Assembly last week like niblets through a goose.

No, it was none other than local-boy-made-good Hans A. von Spakovsky, who used to run a law office and consulting company out of his Sandy Springs house. At the time, he also served on the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections and headed the Fulton County Republican Party.

After the Bush ascendancy, von Spakovsky was named counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Justice Department. And, then, on Jan. 4 of this year, President Bush named von Spakovsky to the FEC.

Three weeks later, von Spakovsky's name surfaced in a Washington Post article that focused on the Justice Department's quick-and-easy approval last year of the 2005 Georgia voter ID law. It turns out that political appointees checked off on the new law despite concerns raised by the department's own staff that it would hurt black voters.

Some of the things that troubled the staff lawyers were the astonishing words of Georgia's Church Lady, state Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta. An internal Justice Department memo dated Aug. 25 said, "Rep. Burmeister said that if there are fewer black votes because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud. She said that when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls."

Burmeister has since denied she said that. But the law got speedy approval from top Justice officials, anyway. A federal judge then suspended the law. He felt the $20 fee for a state photo ID card — required for voters without other government-approved photo ID — was like the old-fashioned poll tax that once was used to keep Southern blacks and poor whites from voting.

In response, Georgia Republicans rushed changes in the voter ID law through the General Assembly last week. It provides for free voter ID cards. To get the controversial bill out of the headlines as quickly as possible, Gov. Sonny Perdue quickly signed it into law.

In its story last month, the Post said many lawyers in the Justice Department's voting section charged that senior officials exerted undue political influence in voting-rights cases like Georgia's.

"One of the officials involved in the decision was Hans von Spakovsky ... who had long advocated a voter-identification law for the state and oversaw many voting issues at Justice," the Post wrote.

Von Spakovsky wouldn't talk to the Post, or, for that matter, to Creative Loafing.

You probably won't hear von Spakovsky's comments about the dangers of absentee ballot voter fraud in the context of the Georgia voter ID law. That would be off-message from a GOP bigwig these days.

In fact, von Spakovsky wrote his warnings about absentee ballot fraud nearly five years ago. They were published by the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology (www.hss.caltech.edu/~voting/von_spakovsky-1.pdf).

But his observations would be ever so timely today.

Some Georgians are deeply concerned that the new voter ID law — designed to thwart voter impersonation at the polls — has made it much easier to commit fraud by absentee ballot.

One of the most concerned is Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who kicked off her campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last week. She notes that the most common source of election fraud in Georgia, for many years, has been absentee ballots.

"Time after time, our elections investigators and the State Elections Board have investigated allegations involving the mishandling, theft or other improper use of absentee ballots," Cox said in an e-mail to CL.

"When the General Assembly considered this legislation last year, we warned of its potential for greatly expanding opportunities for the kinds of real frauds we see in nearly every election — those involving absentees. When a ballot leaves the supervision and control of an election official, any number of bad things can happen, including vote buying and selling, voter intimidation, ballot theft and tampering."

But Dan McLagan, communications director for the Republican Perdue, who is seeking re-election this year, dismissed Democratic concerns about absentee ballot fraud.

"The absentee ballot has a paper trail," McLagan said. "It is sent to a certain address and comes back to a certain address. You really have to be willing to commit a crime that can be traced if you are going to do voter fraud" by absentee ballot, he said.

McLagan's argument might sound more plausible if it weren't for the inconvenience of a real world in which absentee irregularities make up the bulk of the state's voter fraud complaints.

Few people noticed that the Republicans actually weakened absentee ballot safeguards in last year's bill because so much concern was focused on the photo ID cards.

"It slid under the radar with all the discussion on the photo requirement," says Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.

And this year's bill merely made the IDs free. It didn't address the absentee ballot problems created by last year's bill.

Under the new law, people no longer have to give a reason to cast an absentee ballot, such as being disabled or planning to be out of the precinct on Election Day.

In other words, Georgia now has a de facto vote-by-mail system. You want an absentee ballot, you get it.

Also distressing, Brown says, is that the law eliminates an elections reform passed in the 1990s that prohibited candidates and parties from mailing absentee ballot applications in the same envelope with campaign literature. Those mailers can now be mixed together and can confuse voters, he said.

Brown was furious last year because he felt the photo ID requirement "was clearly designed to marginalize certain targeted groups — the elderly, rural Georgians, low-income Georgians — who might tend to vote Democratic."

As for the loosening of absentee ballot requirements by Republican leaders, he says, "I think it is an outrageous move on their part with all the pontificating they do about protecting the ballot and protecting the integrity of the process."

Brown says his experience in elections, especially campaigning for U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., convinced him that voting by absentee ballot is a key part of Republican strategy.

"I think it's fair to say," he said. "They had an absentee ballot plan as part of their marketing and much more extensively than the Democrats."

And who can blame the GOP?

Absentee ballots have been very, very good to them.

The New York Times, after a six-month investigation into the 2000 election in Florida, reported in 2001: "Under intense pressure from the Republicans, Florida officials accepted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state laws."

The Times found 680 questionable votes from Americans living abroad.

"Although it is not known for whom the flawed ballots were cast, four out of five were accepted in counties carried by Mr. Bush," the Times wrote. "Mr. Bush's final margin in the official total was 537 votes."

Senior Editor Doug Monroe likes to vote in person so he can get one of those little sticky Peaches to wear on his shirt. But he says they fall off too quickly and need more glue. You can contact him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.