JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL
If Dems want honest elections, why did a Soros-backed group hire criminals to get out the vote?
Monday, June 28, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
When the Associated Press last week turned up evidence that America Coming Together, an anti-Bush group funded by $5 million from financier George Soros, had hired dozens of felons to go door-to-door and register voters in Florida, Missouri and Ohio, the defensive fire from ACT was swift and predictable.
First, ACT claimed it hadn't employed violent felons. Then when the AP reported that ACT employees included people convicted of assault and sex offenses, the group admitted it might also have hired felons in 14 other battleground states. It also promised to fire anyone guilty of "violent or other serious offenses." In some cases it won't have to; four felons it hired in Missouri have already gone back to prison, including one for endangering the welfare of a minor.
That's one reason the Missouri Department of Corrections banned ACT from its list of potential employers for parolees in halfway houses. Noting that the felons would have to handle driver's license information and telephone numbers as part of the voter-registration process, the department concluded that "from a public safety standpoint, we didn't want offenders to be in a situation where they would be handling that information."
ACT also denied that it is violating federal election laws that prohibit it from engaging in partisan activity on behalf of the Kerry campaign, even though its Web site says it is "laying the groundwork to defeat George W. Bush and elect Democrats." Its roster of staffers is chock full of Democratic operatives with close ties to Mr. Kerry. Just this month, ACT staffer Rodney Shelton left to join the Kerry campaign as its Arkansas state director. At the same time, former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan has joined ACT. Federal law forbids any coordination between ACT and the Kerry campaign, but is impossible to enforce.
Ellen Malcolm, ACT's president, says the attacks on her group represent an attempt "to distort and play politics with this situation, to attempt to disrupt ACT and our grassroots activities." But in light of the felon scandal, ACT's activities now merit closer scrutiny, because they may be making the problem of our sloppy voter rolls worse. The Federal Election Commission found in 2002 that 12% of all registered voters nationally were "inactive voters," and thus subject to possible misuse by having someone else vote in their name. In Missouri, a swing state George W. Bush narrowly won in 2000, ACT bought at least $40,000 worth of voter lists from the state's Democratic Party and then paid 75 canvassers between $8 and $12 an hour to go door-to-door and sign up new voters. Since January, they have signed up 12,000 new voter registrations in St. Louis alone.
The St. Louis Election Board reports that about three quarters of ACT's registrations were valid, but trusting any numbers they put is a perilous exercise. St. Louis is one of several American cities in which registered voters outnumber residents of voting age. State Auditor Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, issued a scathing report on the Election Board's procedures last month. It found that nearly 10%, or 24,000, of the city's voters were "questionable." The report tabulated 4,405 dead people, 2,242 felons, 1,453 people voting from vacant lots and 15,963 also registered somewhere else in Missouri or Illinois. At least 935 of the felons, or some 40%, had apparently cast a ballot in a recent election.
"You have felons registering felons who then commit another felony by casting an illegal vote," says Missouri's Sen. Kit Bond, who co-authored the 2002 Help America Vote Act to start the process of cleaning up the nation's voter rolls. He was motivated by the chaotic Election Day of 2000 in which the Gore campaign sued to keep the polls open in St. Louis on the grounds people had been denied the right to vote. Their "plaintiff," Robert D. Odom, turned out to be dead. An aide to a Democratic congressman with the same last name was then substituted as the plaintiff, but then it was discovered that he had successfully voted earlier that day. A St. Louis judge nonetheless ordered the polls kept open, and they were for 45 minutes until a higher court overruled her.
Ms. McCaskill, the state auditor, has concluded the St. Louis Election Board is beyond fixing. She says it needs "local control and direct accountability" and suggests control of it be transferred directly to the mayor. Gov. Bob Holden, a fellow Democrat, agrees.
Reform may finally be in the cards in St. Louis, but at least a dozen other major U.S. cities, ranging from Philadelphia to Miami, also need a complete housecleaning. In 2001, the Palm Beach Post concluded that more than 5,600 people voted in Florida even though they appeared to perfectly match names on a list of suspected felons who were barred from voting. A smaller number of people were also mistakenly listed on voter rolls as being felons when they were not.
But anyone who combats vote fraud or questions the accuracy of voter rolls is likely to come in for abuse. When the Miami Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the rampant absentee ballot fraud in that city's 1998 mayoral election, the Pulitzer jury noted it had been subject to "a public campaign accusing the paper of ethnic bias and attempted intimidation." Local officials in several states who've tried to purge voter rolls of felons and noncitizens have been hit with nuisance lawsuits alleging civil-rights abuse. It's no surprise that many rolls remain clogged with voter deadwood.
A generation ago, the existence of insidious poll taxes and other forms of voter intimidation represented a real threat to free and fair elections. But those problems have receded, only to be replaced by old-fashioned ballot rigging.
We now send teams of election observers to countries such as Venezuela, Cambodia and Albania, where fraud has been rampant. The mess in St. Louis and other cities should prompt us to consider having some election observers in our own backyard. Surely the right to vote includes an equal right not to have that ballot diluted by nonexistent or ineligible voters.