Vote fraud targeted by new Pa. voter ID law no longer common

Commissioner Stephanie Singer says the law goes too far.
Commissioner Stephanie Singer says the law goes too far.
Posted: May 04, 2012

In the 1960s, a Democratic ward leader took shoe boxes full of quarters to the polls in poor neighborhoods - "to pay off voters," a veteran election lawyer recalls.

In 1993, a judge overturned a pivotal State Senate race because of hundreds of bogus absentee ballots.

In last year's primary, dozens of polling places mysteriously recorded more votes in some races than the number of voters who'd signed in.

All are examples of real or suspected vote fraud, Philadelphia-style. And all have this in common: They probably wouldn't have been stopped or detected by the new photo ID requirement for all Pennsylvania voters.

The new law, ushered in by Republican legislators and signed by Gov. Corbett, is intended to deter interlopers from impersonating honest voters.

Such a law might have foiled the gangs of "repeaters" that 19th-century party bosses sent to polls to fix Philadelphia elections. But that's not the type of fraud seen or suspected in more recent Philadelphia voting. Just ask veteran election lawyer Gregory Harvey about the shoe boxes.

As Harvey remembers it, the boxes belonged to the late Benjamin R. Donolow, a powerful state senator and Democratic ward leader in the 1950s and '60s. Harvey said Donolow prepared for election days by filling the boxes with quarters and distributing them at polls in what is now Society Hill, which was then one of the city's most rundown neighborhoods.

"These shoe boxes were intended to pay off voters," Harvey said. Voters got a quarter on their way into their polling place, he said, "and several quarters after they came out if they let the judge of elections part the curtains and move the levers for them."

Harvey said he learned of that because "I had to deal with a colleague given such a shoe box. He asked me for advice on what to do. I told him to seal it with tape and give it back to Mr. Donolow after the election."

Signs of potential fraud persist to this day. The city commissioners are looking into results at about 83 voting divisions in the 2011 primary where more votes were tallied than the number of voters who signed the poll books, a prerequisite for getting at the voting machines.

The explanation may be benign: a voting machine set up in the wrong division, or voters permitted to cast ballots in the wrong party primary.

But the numbers might also signal that in some divisions, a time-honored tactic was used: dishonest poll workers let someone go through the poll book late on Election Day, forge signatures of people who didn't vote, and record multiple votes for favored candidates. That tactic has a nickname among election officials: "running the book."

Then there's absentee voting. David Oh, now a freshman on City Council, had sought office in 2007 and had a solid lead in unofficial tallies from voting machines. Yet it became a 122-vote loss - thanks to hundreds of absentee ballots, dozens of them "voting for exactly the same candidates, filled out in exactly the same way," Oh recalls.

Wider problems with absentee ballots led a federal judge to overturn results of a key Philadelphia legislative race in 1993, deciding which party controlled the State Senate. Republican Bruce Marks was declared the winner over Democrat Bill Stinson after Judge Clarence Newcomer found forgeries and other problems affecting hundreds of ballots - about 90 percent of which favored Stinson.

The new law does add ID requirements for issuing absentee ballots, which could have helped curb the abuses suspected in the 2007 race and documented in 1993.

But the law's main provision, requiring the state's 8.2 million registered voters to produce drivers' licenses or other official forms of photo ID, appears to target a kind of fraud that by all accounts hasn't cropped up in recent years in the city or state.

"The phrase used is voter impersonation, where John Doe pretends to be Henry Jones in order to cast a vote," Harvey said. "No one has identified any such cases, certainly in Philadelphia, in my time frame." Harvey is 75.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts reported last month that there had been no convictions for voter impersonation or voter fraud in Pennsylvania in the last five years. And at a recent budget hearing, when Corbett's secretary of the commonwealth, Carol Aichele - who as head of the Department of State oversees elections - was asked about evidence of voter fraud in the state, she said she wasn't aware of specific cases, adding, "There is no method to detect or deter voter fraud."

That, Aichele said, was "the main problem," according to a summary of her testimony by House staff members.

One researcher says impersonation fraud doesn't crop up in other states, either. "There's very little evidence that there actually is a problem," said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which studies election laws and related issues and which is affiliated with the New York University School of Law.

"When you look at what really happens around the country," Gaskins said, "most voter problems involve registration, and much of it is administrative in nature – people moving and not realizing they can't go back to their old polling place to vote, that kind of thing."

Intentional fraud, Gaskins said, "tends to be around absentee voting. . . . You'll see organized efforts by candidates to make up addresses and get bunches of absentee ballots. But unless you've got complicity with election officials, they tend to be caught."

The new law requires registered voters seeking absentee ballots by mail to submit at least one of three forms of ID: a copy of a Pennsylvania driver's license or another government-issued photo ID, or the full ID number of the voter's driver's license, or the last four digits of the voter's Social Security number.

The change dovetails with existing Pennsylvania law: To register to vote, you must provide the final digits of your Social Security number as well as your full driver's license number, if you have one. Local election workers put the data into a computer system that tracks registrations statewide.

So the new requirement for absentee-ballot applications gives local officials an added way to screen applicants, by license numbers or Social Security numbers, before the ballot goes out in the mail.

Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State, said the tougher restrictions on issuing absentee ballots show that the new law is responsive to actual vote-fraud problems.

Stephanie Singer, Philadelphia's top election official, agreed - in part. "That part of the bill would address the kinds of absentee-ballot fraud we've seen in the past," she said. "But that is in no way a justification for the rest of the law."

Singer is among scores of Democratic officeholders and civil rights advocates who contend that the new law jeopardizes the voting rights of the elderly, young people, and the poor, especially those who don't drive or who may have problems obtaining other forms of photo ID acceptable under the law. The ACLU, NAACP, and other groups sued Tuesday to overturn the law.

Photo ID might have been better received at the turn of the 20th century - when "repeaters" were rampant. Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist who labeled Philadelphia "corrupt and contented" in 1903, wrote of a story told to him by a hotel employee in the city.

"My hotel man . . . said that at the last election, when he went to the polls, he was challenged; he had 'voted already,' " Steffens wrote in his 1931 autobiography - "his name and his brother's name had been voted on by [party] machine repeaters."

The hotel worker told Steffens, "I kicked so hard that they let me vote, but they called in a couple of gangsters to offset my ballot by voting the other way - in the names of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.' "


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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