Ohio Cracks Down on Voter Fraud

Ohio Cracks Down on Voter Fraud
AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File
Ohio Cracks Down on Voter Fraud
AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File
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Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose continued this week aggressively pursuing criminal prosecutions against voters accused of gaming the state’s election laws. On Wednesday, the Republican serving in his first year as secretary of state referred 18 Ohio residents for prosecution on charges they voted twice in the 2018 midterm elections. This move comes on the heels of additional criminal referrals last week in which LaRose sent local prosecutors evidence that 77 noncitizens in the state voted in 2018 -- and that another 277 noncitizens were illegally registered to vote.

“These are small numbers out of a state of 7.6 million registered voters, but there's no such thing as an acceptable level of voter fraud,” LaRose told RealClearPolitics.

This doesn’t amount to much potential voter fraud, especially compared to claims that noncitizens are voting en masse. Earlier this year, the Texas secretary of state’s office produced documents claiming that 58,000 noncitizens had illegally voted in state elections between 1996 and 2018. It quickly emerged that the data was riddled with errors. The whole incident turned into a political debacle resulting in the May resignation of Secretary of State David Whitley.

On the other end of the spectrum, many voting rights activists wrongly claim that voter fraud is a myth. But if Ohio’s targeting of more than 400 potential cases of voter fraud seems trivial, it’s worth remembering that extremely close elections happen all the time. A year ago last summer, the Democratic primary for the post of Baltimore County executive was decided by 17 votes. In 2017, a general election contest in the Virginia House of Delegates in which 23,000 votes were cast ended in an exact tie – in a race that determined party control in Richmond. Likewise, a seat in the Vermont legislature was won by a single vote in 2016. Moreover, this was a rematch between a Democrat and Republican who ran against each other in 2010, an election also won by a single vote – in the other direction.

Close elections happen in statewide races too. In 2008, Democrat Al Franken won Minnesota’s U.S. Senate election by a mere 312 votes – out of 2.9 million votes cast. Accusations of illegal voting in that state have cast a shadow on the result ever since. A conservative group, Minnesota Majority, later cross-referenced criminal records and voter rolls and claimed to identify 1,099 felons who illegally voted in the race.

In Ohio, LaRose is being careful not to overstate the problem. His  office is also careful to note that just because someone has been referred for potential prosecution, that doesn’t mean the state has determined their guilt. Each of the noncitizens his office cited provided the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles with documentation confirming they were a noncitizen on at least two different occasions. Additionally, all noncitizens referred for prosecution were sent multiple notices by the state that they must cancel their registration, as mandated by Ohio law.

The 18 Ohio voters who allegedly voted twice in the 2018 election in different states were identified through a recent initiative to encourage states to share voter data. “The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is a multistate partnership that uses a sophisticated and secure data-matching tool to improve the accuracy and efficiency of state voter registration systems,” notes the Pew Charitable Trust website. “Through participation in ERIC, states can compare official data on eligible voters — such as voter and motor vehicle registrations, U.S. Postal Service addresses, and Social Security death records — to keep voter rolls more complete and up to date.”

ERIC was first formed in 2012 with the financial assistance of Pew. That same year, a Pew-sponsored study found that one out of every eight voter registrations in the United States are “no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.”

As of this month, 29 states and the District of Columbia are currently participating in ERIC, although not all of them are participating in the effort to identify people who may have voted in more than one state.

Florida, which might have more dual residents that than any other state, just announced it was joining ERIC this week. While the creation of ERIC is helping to root out double voters and other forms of voter fraud, the fact that 21 states are not members of the partnership, combined with the limited participation of the states that are members, suggests that voter fraud is still being underreported.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania admitted over 11,000 noncitizens were registered to vote due to an error at the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The state was alerted to the problem in 2017, but didn’t concede that thousands of noncitizens were registered until a lawsuit by the Public Interest Legal Foundation forced the state to address the problem.

PILF released a study in 2017 claiming that Virginia had removed 5,556 noncitizens from the voter rolls between 2011 and May 2017, and that 1,852 of them had voted a total of 7,474 times. However, just as state officials have had problems with voter data, outside efforts to accurately ascertain the extent of voter fraud data have had problems as well – PILF later apologized to four people wrongly identified as noncitizens in state records and who were later named in PILF's report.

But where states such as Pennsylvania have had to be heavily prodded to deal with this issue, neighboring Ohio is an exception. When LaRose was in the legislature, his state passed a statute creating online voter registration with bipartisan support. As part of that law, the state is required to do an annual inspection of its voter rolls, which are maintained in 88 different county registration databases. Part of that inspection is “comparing our list against the Ohio Department of Public Safety list of who's a citizen and who's not,” notes LaRose.

The results of Ohio’s latest annual review suggest that voter fraud isn’t widespread in the Buckeye State, while also demonstrating it’s a problem too significant to ignore. Few states and localities have in place resources and oversight comparable to Ohio for policing the matter, and while cooperative efforts such as ERIC are proving useful, they still have a long way to go.   

“Voter fraud is rare,” says LaRose, “and part of the way that we keep it rare is by prosecuting it when it occurs and making sure people know that we're not going to tolerate it.”  

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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