All over America, pundits on the right frequently grouse about rampant voter fraud and the need to protect against it. Some on the left counter by saying that there is no evidence of voter fraud -- only claims of fraud designed to suppress votes of minorities and the poor. Who do you believe?
There is a vast difference between allegations of voter fraud and proof of voter fraud. Nationally, within the past year, we've seen a variety of voter fraud claims reporting that thousands of residents on one state were registered and voting in other states. However, a disturbing number of these cases have evaporated under scrutiny.
But what about here in Vermont? As someone who in 2006 lost a statewide election by a minuscule 102 votes, I wanted to know. So I sought to find out. With the advantage of big data and inexpensive computer power, I was able to actually compare voter records to a level of detail that would have not have been possible in past years.
Here's what I found:
Twenty-two individuals voted in Vermont and also voted in another state in the 2012 general election. These votes included six each in New York and Massachusetts, two each in Connecticut, Florida and Colorado and one vote each in Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin. Most, but not all, of the duplicate voters were of college age or slightly older.
I compared a sample of over a hundred thousand Vermont voters to voters in 48 other states and found hundreds of people who were registered in Vermont and at least one other state. But that does not necessarily indicate fraudulent intent. It's not unusual for there to be duplicate registrations because of people moving and the inefficiency of the manual process that states use to update their election rolls. Simply stated, that there is no effective process in existence to reconcile voters between states.
Voting twice in the same election is a federal crime. Section 1973 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides for five years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both for voting twice in the same election or for knowingly giving false information as to a voter's name, address or period of residence in the voting district. But prosecutions, even when dual voting is established, are rare indeed.
One of the major problems that plague most studies of voter fraud is that they have solely been based upon computer matching of data such as name, date of birth and social security number. While these would seem to be definitive, my study identified a number of cases in which corrupted data could have led to incorrect conclusions. In several cases, the other state's statewide checklist said the individual voted, but the county or municipal record, when checked, showed the opposite.
My study relied not only on automated data matches, but also upon validating common identity though individual confirmation using proprietary investigative databases, public records and self-identification through social media. For example, several names of people who were suspected of duplicate voting had their identities confirmed based upon their own social media entries, where their Vermont and out-of-state connections were posted. I also verified the 2012 votes with officials both in Vermont and out-of-state where possible.
Interestingly, the 22 duplicate voters included seven current or former UVM students and three students from Bennington College. Chittenden 3-1 was the legislative district registering the most duplicate voters, five.
On the subject of voting from the grave, there is good news in that there is no evidence of votes being cast from Vermont's cemeteries. The bad news is that thousands of dead Vermonters could have voted. Although death certificate filings should have caused the removal of these voters from the rolls, this was not uniformly done. Town clerks' efforts to clean up voter rolls was in general good, but still uneven. Fortunately, despite the opportunity to commit fraud, Vermonters showed themselves to be remarkably honest.
Using Vermont Department of Health records, I compared the 15,400 Vermonters who died between 2009 and 2011 with those who voted in the 2012 general election. I found only two cases where a deceased individual was found to have cast a ballot. One case was resolved when a town clerk in the Northeast Kingdom recalled a likely error. The other case, in St. Johnsbury, remains unresolved.
Because of the small size of Vermont legislative districts, voter fraud, in the rare cases when it occurs, could have particular significance in Vermont. In recent years, there have been several legislative elections that have been decided by two or fewer votes. The most recent case in 2010 involved a Tunbridge race in which incumbent Republican representative David Ainsworth was defeated by Sarah Buxton by a single vote.
Do we accept a small amount of voter fraud as the "cost of doing business" in a democracy? Or do we say that we must address the rare breaches of voter integrity that strike at the heart of our form of government? Our challenge is to make voting welcome for everyone while discouraging those few criminals who would cheat honest voters of their suffrage. One way to do this is to use a new tool created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a respected non-partisan non-profit. Pew has created something called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a multistate partnership that uses sophisticated software to prevent cross-border voter fraud. Eleven states -- Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Washington -- as well as the District of Columbia have joined to match data to prevent cross-border fraud. Vermont should consider joining them.
But in the meantime, for those in Vermont who are thinking of voting twice in the future, here's a word of warning: Now, thanks to technology, there are those of us who are watching.
Randy Brock heads Rockledge Risk Advisors LLC. He is a former Vermont state auditor, state senator and he was the 2012 Republican nominee for Governor of Vermont. He is a Certified Fraud Examiner.