Voter Fraud and Democracy: How Damaging Is DOJ's Failure to Enforce Voting Law?
In the fall of 2008, Tarrell Campbell was a student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. With his three separate master’s degrees, he had been on a college campus, somewhere, for more than a decade. He was so interested in the outcome of the 2008 presidential election that he cast a ballot in Illinois, then drove across a Mississippi River bridge to his hometown of St. Louis and voted again.
Last week, Mr. Campbell entered a guilty plea to federal voter fraud charges for illegally casting two votes in a federal election. He may well sit out the next presidential election in federal prison.
This strange case of a highly educated criminal seeking to game our electoral system is not as rare as you might think. While some dismiss voter fraud as a myth, as common as unicorns and Sasquatch, others claim fraud regularly determines election winners. Both views are wrong. The truth lies somewhere in between.
When he plead guilty, Tarrell Campbell told the federal judge that he simply had forgotten about his Illinois vote when he voted in Missouri. For that preposterous claim alone, he should have to go to jail. Campbell also trumpeted his three advanced degrees as a justification for leniency. Most Americans probably think those three master's degrees merit extra jail time.
Campbell described one of his degrees as a study of “economic social systems and Mediterranean studies.” He noted: “This program is centered on economic policy and how it can be best implemented in the Arab world.” No word on whether taxpayer dollars were used to educate this professional student turned federal felon, but we can probably presume we all helped Campbell one way or another earn those multiple degrees.
Unfortunately, Tarrell Campbell is but one of many recent examples of voter fraud.
It is a federal crime to vote more than once in any election where federal candidates are on the ballot. This statute can be used to prosecute someone who casts more than one absentee ballot, as well as someone like Campbell who votes in more than one state. It can also be used to prosecute someone who votes twice within the same state.
The problem is that double voting is some of the hardest voter fraud to detect. Section 8 of the federal “Motor Voter” law requires states to conduct reasonable efforts to ensure that only eligible voters are on state voter rolls. Dead people, ineligible felons, and people who have moved should not be on the voter rolls as a matter of federal law. Unfortunately, states usually don’t share their voter lists with other states. Nor has the Justice Department ever sought to act as a clearing house of multi-state registration data to detect duplicate voter registrations across states.
The federal government can enforce Section 8 of Motor Voter, but as I have reported previously, that isn’t going to happen unless there is a change in Justice Department policy.
In November 2009, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes, the Obama political appointee in charge of the DOJ Voting Section, told the assembled Voting Section that the Eric Holder Justice Department had “no interest in enforcing Section 8.” Because “Section 8 denied ballot access rather than increase turnout,” the DOJ wouldn’t be enforcing the law, she said. Her tone exhibited dismissive contempt for this law.
Upon hearing this lawless announcement, seasoned Voting Section veterans and managers had a look on their faces as if someone announced without shame they were planning to steal boxloads of office supplies. I was there to hear the corrupt announcement firsthand. I saw the reactions.
The curious case of Tarrell Campbell is the hardest to police, but it is not impossible. Unfortunately, corrupt toleration of corrupted voter lists makes it harder to do so. Of course the criminal process can catch up with people like Campbell. But vigorous enforcement of Section 8 can also play an important role, and the DOJ should reverse Fernandes’ lawless policy and bring cases against states who have thousands of ineligible voters on their rolls.
The duplicate registration problem is most acute in places like St. Louis where metro areas overlap state lines. Voters tend to move across state lines and end up registered in more than one state, as Campbell was. Other places where this has become a serious list maintenance problem are in the DeSoto County Mississippi/Memphis area, Cincinnati/Kentucky, and perhaps worst of all, between New York and Florida, where overtaxed New Yorkers tend to flee.
One solution to curb double voting would be for states to cooperate in sharing voter lists and thereby detect people illegally registered in more than one jurisdiction. In problem spots like DeSoto/Memphis, the DOJ could obtain voter lists and do their own checking as part of a Section 8 investigation. Of course, that won’t happen as long as open institutional hostility to enforcing Section 8 exists.
Those who claim voter fraud is not pervasive enough to waste precious resources for Section 8 enforcement need only look to Tennessee for a sample of what is happening all around the nation.
Anne Enochs, a 69-year-old art teacher from Memphis, was arrested last month for voting twice. She offered an excuse as improbable as Mr. Campbell’s -- it was an accident. Memphis has seen a stack of double voting and felon voting indictments just in the last few weeks.
In Tennessee it is illegal for felons to be on the voter rolls. Despite the serious problems with ineligible felons on the rolls in Tennessee, don’t expect the DOJ to initiate a Section 8 investigation to fix the problem. After all, the DOJ is all about “increasing turnout, not blocking access,” according to Fernandes.
A four-hour drive east of Memphis takes you to Hickman County. A convicted felon there is not only on the voter rolls, he is sitting on the Hickman County Council. Commissioner James Hassell even uses his moonshining conviction in his campaign -- proudly posting signs that have been “paid for by the Moonshiners.” How unserious must Tennessee be about voter list integrity for a convicted felon to incorporate his conviction into an election campaign?
How many more examples will it take for the DOJ to take Section 8 seriously and clean up voter rolls of felons, dead people, and ineligible voters? If every example of list maintenance problems were presented to this DOJ, and there are many, I doubt they would act to enforce Section 8 even then.
Just in the last month there have been indictments, convictions, or investigations of voter fraud in: Atlantic City, New Jersey; Troy, New York; Canton, Mississippi; Brooks County, Georgia; Independence, Louisiana; Dillon County, South Carolina; Adair County, Oklahoma; Muncie, Indiana; and most notably, Minnesota, where there have been dozens of felon voting indictments arising out of the closely contested 2008 elections. Voter fraud is decidedly more common than unicorns.
Does voter fraud regularly affect who wins election? Outside of a few examples, I do not believe that it does, but integrity of the electoral process is perhaps more important than who wins and loses an election. Lawlessness in elections corrodes the entire democratic process. This lawlessness ranges from Tarrell Campbell’s decision to drive to St. Louis to vote again, through to Julie Fernandes’ edict that she has decided to nullify a federal statute designed to require integrity in voter rolls.
There are more victims of this lawlessness. When Tarrell Campbell cast a second vote for president in St. Louis, that meant some law-abiding citizen’s legitimate vote somewhere else in Missouri was effectively cancelled. And when felons proudly campaign for office on their felony convictions when they shouldn’t even be on the voter rolls, the rule of law is seriously diminished.
It is false to claim, as some do, that voter fraud doesn’t occur very often. I monitor incidents of election fraud, and there are many, many examples. Yet academics and government officials profess otherwise, and their priorities reflect this willful ignorance. On the other hand, those who wish to see greater attention devoted to voter fraud would do well to abandon the canard that most elections are decided by fraud, and instead fight for the integrity of the democratic process. The truth is that voter fraud occurs frequently, and it determines who wins elections infrequently.
Will future Tarrell Campbells exploit the DOJ’s hostility toward vigorous enforcement of Section 8 and lawlessly game the system in the 2010 and 2012 elections? You don’t need three advanced degrees to figure that one out.