On the Motor Voter Act and Voter Fraud

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Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee:

My name is John Samples. I am Director of the Center forRepresentative Government at The Cato Institute.

I want to thank you Mr. Chairman for inviting me to testifybefore the committee about election reform.

Mr. Chairman, the United States of America is the greatestexample of what James Madison called "popular rule." We enjoy alegacy of democratic rights and obligations that remains the envyof the world. Differences notwithstanding, we all agree that thefranchise is sacred and should be above mere partisan or individualadvantage. At the same time, in the spirit of the Founding Fathers,we seek to improve our political system when necessary andpossible. I appreciate the opportunity to testify today about someshortcomings of our current electoral system.

In 1994, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act(popularly known as the "Motor Voter Act"). Congress succinctlystated the aims of the law:

  • to establish procedures that will increase the number ofeligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federaloffice;
  • to make it possible for Federal, State, and local governmentsto implement this Act in a manner that enhances the participationof eligible citizens as voters in elections for Federaloffice;
  • to protect the integrity of the electoral process;
  • to ensure that accurate and current voter registration rollsare maintained.

The National Voter Registration Act has clearly fulfilled one ofthose purposes. Registration rolls grew by 20 percent from 1994 to1998. Yet enhanced voter registration was never an end in itself.Many activists and experts believed the United States suffered fromdeclining voter participation and that increasing registrationwould lead to higher voter turnout. Both of these beliefs haveturned out to be wrong.

For many years political scientists saw a steady decline in theelectoral turnout of the voting age population and as a percentageof registered voters. Leaders in the discipline also thought thatreducing the costs of voting - primarily through easierregistration - would arrest this steady decline and fortifyAmerican democracy. The National Voter Registration Act thus grewout of the findings of political science.

Political scientists have traditionally measured voting turnoutas a percentage of the voting age population. Recently politicalscientists Samuel Popkin and Michael McDonald have shown that"voting age population" is an inaccurate gauge for measuringturnout. The Census Bureau's estimate of the voting age populationincludes several categories of persons ineligible to vote:non-citizens, disenfranchised felons, persons who have moved to anew residence after registration closed, and the mentallyincompetent. Popkin and McDonald have produced a new and moreaccurate measure of the American population eligible to vote.Figure 1 shows Popkin and McDonald's revised turnout duringPresidential elections as percentage of those eligible to vote.Figure 2 indicates revised turnout during off-year elections asproportion of those eligible to vote.

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The United States did see a decline in voting turnout amongeligible voters around 1972. Since 1974, the trend in votingturnout in national elections has been basically flat duringpresidential years and slightly upward during non-presidentialelection years. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, the UnitedStates had experienced steady turnout at the polls for about threedecades. There has been no steady decline, nor a crisis oflegitimacy for the American republic. The National VoterRegistration Act aimed to solve a problem that did not exist.

"Motor Voter" has also failed to increase voting turnout.Looking at Popkin and McDonald's revised numbers in Figures 1 and2, we see that turnout after 1994 is similar to turnout prior tothe law. Participation in the Presidential election of 1996 was thelowest since 1948 while estimates of turnout in 2000 suggest anaverage performance. The same can be said of the off year electionsin 1994 and 1998. The world of voting turnout before and after"Motor Voter" looks much the same. This is not really surprising.As the political scientist Martin Wattenberg has pointed out,states like North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin have no or verylenient registration requirements, and yet all have seen declinesin voting turnout.

In summary, we have received few of the benefits promised by theNational Voter Registration Act. While registration has increased,the law has not enhanced "the participation of eligible citizens asvoters in elections for Federal office." Moreover, the basicpremise of "Motor Voter" - reducing the costs of registration wouldincrease voter turnout - now seems disproved by experience. Theplus side of the ledger for "Motor Voter" seems empty.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the negative side ofthe ledger. The costs of "Motor Voter" should be measured by theother goals of the law. Congress intended for "Motor Voter" to bothprotect the integrity of the electoral process and to ensureofficials could maintain "accurate and clean" registration rolls.Neither goal has been met.

The Motor Voter Act allowed citizens to register to votesimultaneously with an application for a driver's license, by mail,or in person. The Act made it harder to verify the identity ofvoters seeking to register. It also considerably complicated thestates' task of keeping the registration rolls clean. For example,to remove a voter who has moved from the rolls of a votingdistrict, the local jurisdiction has two choices. First, they couldget written confirmation of the move from the citizen. Lackingthat, the jurisdiction had to send a notice to the voter. If thenotice card was not returned and the person did not vote in twogeneral elections for Federal office after the notice was sent,then the jurisdiction could remove their name from the rolls.

The cost of these mailings is significant. In Indiana, forexample, such a mailing would have a price tag of about $2 millionor about twice the Election Division's entire annual budget. Giventhis price tag and the limited resources of most local electionboards, we should not be surprised that the registration rollsthroughout the nation are enormously inaccurate. In some counties,election administrators report, the voting roll numbers are biggerthan the voting-age population.

In the short time since Election 2000, we have seen startlingnew evidence of the disorder of registration rolls in severalstates. In Indiana, for example, the Indianapolis Star lookedclosely at the rolls. They concluded that tens of thousands ofpeople appear on the voter rolls more than once, that more than 300dead people were registered, and that three convicted killers andtwo convicted child molesters were on the rolls. In general,experts believe one in five names on the rolls in Indiana do notbelong there. A recent study in Georgia found more than 15,000 deadpeople on active voting rolls statewide. Alaska, according toFederal Election Commission, had 502,968 names on its voter rollsin 1998. The census estimates only 437,000 people of voting agewere living in the state that year. Similar studies in other stateswould no doubt return similar data.

In the balance of my testimony, I would like to focus on theevents in St. Louis, Missouri, both during the election of 2000 andthereafter. I believe these events point out the real costs "MotorVoter" has imposed on the United States.

Since last fall, "Operation Big Vote" has been active in the St.Louis area as part of a national campaign -- promoted by Democrats-- to register more African-American voters and get them to thepolling booth. This effort delivered 3,800 voter registration cardsto the St. Louis Elections Board on the February 7, 2001, thedeadline for the March mayoral primary in that city.

A cursory check of the registration cards turned up questionablenames. Shortly thereafter, election board workers spent an entireday calling the names listed on the cards and found that nearly allof them were fraudulent. Many of them sought to register prominentpeople, dead or alive - as well as at least three deceased aldermenand a dog. The media have reported that close examinations haveturned up cards that attempted to register prominent businessmenusing their childhood addresses, a former deputy mayor using an oldaddress for an alderman, and a former alderman who has been deadfor years. They also found cards for convicted felons and forresidents who did not seek to register themselves in the primary.The woman at the center of this vote fraud investigation "doesn'tdeny" that some of her canvassers may have turned in bogus voterregistration cards. A grand jury convened by St. Louis CircuitAttorney Jennifer Joyce has begun interviewing witnesses regardingthe 3,800 bogus registration cards. St. Louis police have obtaineda warrant and searched the house of the Operation Big Vote directorfor evidence.

Not surprisingly, many St. Louis residents are angry thatsomeone had registered them and knew information such as theirSocial Security numbers. Some of the people registered by the boguscards told Election Board workers that someone calling himself "BigMike" came to their homes and said he was with the Election Boardand wanted to register them.

This is not the first time Operation Big Vote has been at thecenter of a voter registration controversy. In 1994, the directorof Operation Big Vote was the subject of a similar investigationinto fraudulent voter registration cards found among the14,000 thatthe group had collected to aid a statewide campaign to allowriverboat casinos. No one was indicted.

The implications of the registration fraud scandal in St. Louisare not limited to current events. St. Louis Election Boardofficials now want to examine 29,500 voter registration cards thatcame in shortly before the deadline for the November 7 election, inlight of discovering that that most of 3,800 cards submitted inFebruary were bogus. John Hancock, executive director of theMissouri Republican Party, called for another look at thelast-minute registrations made for November's election. He alsosaid he preferred that U.S. Attorney Audrey Fleissig take charge"because I think the federal government can bring more force tobear on an investigation of vote fraud." The last-minuteregistrations last fall could throw into question the closeNovember election in Missouri if a sizable number were fraudulent.Democrat Bob Holden won the Missouri contest for governor by about21,000 votes statewide. In this way, the loose registration processset up by "Motor Voter" has cast doubt on the integrity and outcomeof elections in Missouri last year.

Many will recall the election night controversy in St. Louis. Ajudge ordered that voting places be kept open late only to beoverruled shortly thereafter by a Federal appeals court. Theinitial ruling accepted the claims of local activists whomaintained that thousands of voters had been wrongly placed on aninactive list. As it turned out, local officials had acted properlyin composing the inactive list. Missed in the controversy was thefact that up to 400 unqualified voters cast ballots in St. Louis inthe 2000 election.

I turn now to the costs paid by the nation as a result of theNational Voter Registration Act. I begin with concrete dollarsestimates, but I would add that I think perhaps the more importantcosts have been imposed on the civic culture of the UnitedStates.

The clogged rolls have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars incleanup costs and additional election expenses. For example, theIndiana Election Division has conducted its statewide duplicateprogram four times at a total cost of about $900,000. Moreover,several county officials in Indiana have increased the number ofvoting sites unnecessarily because the lists are so inaccurate. Thecounty that includes the transient student population of IndianaUniversity at Bloomington has added about a half dozen precinctssince "Motor Voter" became law. Each new precinct costs countytaxpayers $10,000 for two voting machines and about $500 perelection for additional poll workers and supplies. Statewide inIndiana, more than 200 precincts have been added since the law wentinto effect, according to state election officials. Such costs arenot trivial, especially since the state gets nothing in return forsuch spending. Such costs for the nation as a whole must belarge.

We have also learned about the threat of vote fraud posed bysuch wildly inaccurate voting rolls. Susan Morandi, Nevada's deputysecretary of state for elections, noted that the Motor Voter Actmade registration easier but also made the process "much more opento voter fraud." Experts like Deborah Phillips of the VoterIntegrity Project add that the trend toward mail-in and absenteevoting exacerbates this problem, since those seeking to manipulatethe system can pretend to be a dead person or someone who hasmoved, and then cast a ballot.

The evidence from St. Louis and elsewhere strongly suggests thereality of registration fraud. Looked at technically, registrationfraud is not the same as vote fraud. However, as a practicalmatter, we should ask why anyone would go to the trouble ofcommitting registration fraud if they did not intend to followthrough and commit vote fraud. Otherwise, committing registrationfraud becomes a senseless act. Are we to believe that individualscommit registration fraud for thrills or simply as a practicaljoke? The existence of fraudulent registrations suggests thegreater threat of a corrupt election, a danger that we dismiss atour peril. Given the state of the registration rolls, a major votefraud disaster remains a distinct possibility.

We should not presume that vote fraud is an inconsequentialdanger. On January 22, 2001, the Miami Herald reported that atleast 2,000 illegal votes had been cast in about a third ofFlorida's counties -- very roughly 6,000 for the state as a whole.On January 9, 2001, it revealed that 452 felons had votedunlawfully in Broward County alone. In Georgia, analysts found thatover 5,400 dead people had voted over the past 20 years. As Imentioned, at least 400 unqualified voters cast a ballot in St.Louis last November.

The damage done by vote fraud, of course, is clear. Breaking anylaw, but especially laws meant to protect the integrity of theelectoral process, damages our nation. Vote fraud also devalues thevotes of those who register and vote properly. It also strikes manypeople as unfair: most citizens bear the burdens of exercising theright to vote, those who vote illegally claim the right and wish toescape the minimal burdens associated with that right.

The possibility of vote fraud also harms the nation by callinginto question the integrity of our electoral system. The SupremeCourt has said that the federal government may regulate campaignfinance to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.Allow me to suggest that we should similarly be concerned about theappearance of our electoral process. The lax standards forregistration encouraged by "Motor Voter" have left the voter rollsin a shambles in many states. As St. Louis shows, the uncertaintysurrounding the rolls breeds mistrust and can call the integrity ofthe system into question. "Motor Voter" has fomented "theappearance of corruption" that has, fairly or not, done real damageto American government. Political scientists have charted thedecline in trust in government over the past four decades. Ibelieve "Motor Voter" has been part of that problem, not part ofits solution.

The inflation of the registration rolls has also clearly misledAmericans about the state of their democracy. Inflated andinaccurate rolls give a false measure of voting turnout as aproportion of registered voters. In fact, we now know that votingturnout as a percentage of registered voters is much higher than webelieved because registration rolls are so inflated. In that sense,the news about voting is much better than we thought, and I suspectthat we have seen no decline in voting as a percentage ofregistered voters. We may even have seen a rise in that measure ofvoter participation.

Finally, politics is about cooperation as well as conflict. TheAmerican people expect their representatives to fight hard for acause but also to make compromises that serve the public good. Thegeneral uncertainty surrounding registration procedures - anuncertainty exacerbated by "Motor Voter" - has increased mistrustbetween the two political parties in Missouri and perhapselsewhere. Missouri Republicans now believe with plausible reasonthat some Democrats tried to commit vote fraud last election day.Democrats, on the other hand, suggest Republicans wish todisenfranchise their constituents. Such conflict inevitably weakensour political system and actuates unnecessary partisan rancor thatprecludes potential bipartisan agreement on some issues.

Mr. Chairman, judged by its purposes, the National VoterRegistration Act should be judged a failure. The Act has broughtabout a substantial increase in the number of registered voters.However, that increase has been bought at a high price.Specifically, the Act has made it difficult if not impossible tomaintain clean registration rolls, a major purpose of the law.Moreover, the inaccuracy in the rolls caused by the Act has throwninto doubt the integrity of our electoral system. Finally, the Acthas also failed to achieve its other purpose of increasing voterturnout. In sum, the National Voter Registration Act has providedfew of its promised benefits and imposed significant costs on thenation. For that reason, "Motor Voter" seems ripe for reform.

John Samples

Committee on Rules and Administration
The United States Senate