by Fred Lucas
Voter fraud is too nominal to make a difference in any given election, goes one popular line of argument. But tell that to voters in parts of Florida, Missouri, New York, and North Carolina in recent years.
Districts in these four states saw election outcomes overturned after absentee voter fraud came to light.
Now, with millions of Americans homebound because of COVID-19, progressives are amping up their push for national mail-in voting as Michelle Obama throws her support behind related legislation purporting to be a response to the pandemic.
What neither the former first lady nor the bill’s Democrat sponsors in the Senate, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have talked about are various provisions of the legislation that would allow for ballot harvesting. That practice was abused prominently in the largest voter fraud scandal of recent decades.
“It mandates states allow for ballot harvesting and vote by mail. On the whole, this has little to do with a COVID-19 response and a lot to do with the agenda the Democratic Party has proposed in the past,” Jason Snead, executive director of the watchdog group Honest Elections, said of the bill in a phone interview with The Daily Signal.
“They seem to view this as a politically opportune moment to advance legislation,” Snead said of Obama and other proponents.
“States should be encouraging wide use of absentee voting in the primary season,” Snead said, adding that states also should prepare for contingencies during the November general election even though it’s too early to know what the coronavirus crisis will be like at that point.
While working in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, J. Christian Adams helped bring successful cases against election fraudsters in Starr County, Texas and Noxubee County, Mississippi.
“With ballot harvesting, the politically connected visit the homes of people and vote the ballots for them. These are victims often afraid of consequences,” Adams, now president of Public Interest Legal Foundation, an election integrity group, told The Daily Signal.
In the fallout from the Mississippi case, judges overturned the results of several races.
“You can’t overlook the importance of government jobs in the economically dependent areas,” Adams said. “Vote harvesters, in some cases, don’t have jobs and make more doing this than anything else in some parts of the country.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., unsuccessfully pushed to include provisions of the Wyden-Klobuchar bill in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus emergency relief bill that Congress passed late last month.
“The largest number of voter fraud cases involve absentee ballots,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the election law reform initiative at The Heritage Foundation, where he is a senior legal fellow.
Earlier this year in New Mexico, a man and a woman pleaded guilty in a scheme that involved falsifying absentee ballots in favor of a city councilman running for mayor of the town of Espanola in 2016.
Between 1992 and 2018, at least 20 voter fraud cases resulted in overturned elections, according to The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database.
“The problem with vote harvesting is that it destroys the secret ballot. It allows people to go into homes, pressure people,” von Spakovsky, who also is a former Justice Department lawyer, member of the Federal Election Commission, and member of the 2017 Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
The Democrats’ legislation, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020, would require every state to offer at least 20 days of early voting and “no excuse” absentee balloting.
The rule in most states is that a ballot must be postmarked before Election Day. The Senate bill would force states to accept absentee ballots up to the point polls close, which voter integrity proponents worry would encourage vote harvesting.
The Klobuchar-Wyden legislation also states that local governments should begin processing absentee ballots up to two weeks before an election to avoid delay in certifying a winner. Currently, most jurisdictions don’t count ballots until after Election Day, in part to prevent voting trends from leaking out to the public or campaigns.
Here are 15 instances in which courts threw out an election result based in whole or in part on absentee voting fraud, from The Heritage Foundation’s database and other sources.
- In one of the most high profile cases, the North Carolina Board of Elections decertified the outcome of the 2018 race in the 9th Congressional District and ordered a new election after evidence of absentee ballot fraud emerged. About 61% of all mailed votes were cast for Republican candidate Mark Harris over Democrat Dan McReady, although only 16% of those requesting a ballot were Republicans. In the new election, Republican Dan Bishop stepped in as the party nominee and won.
- In 2018, Dennis Jones beat Tracy Gray by one vote in a Republican primary in Texas for a seat on the Kaufman County Commissioners Court. Gray challenged the outcome, alleging a vote harvester submitted illegal mail-in ballots, while eligible provisional ballots went uncounted. After a hearing, a state judge invalidated the results and ordered a new election, which Gray won by 404 votes.
- In another 2018 Texas case, Armando O’Cana seemingly won a run-off race for mayor in Mission, Texas, beating incumbent Norberto “Beto” Salinas. But after strong evidence emerged that O’Cana’s campaign had bribed voters, tampered with absentee ballots, and improperly “assisted” voters at the polls, state Judge J. Bonner Dorsey invalidated the result, saying: “I hold or find, by clear and convincing evidence, that the number of illegal votes was in excess of 158.”
- In 2017, Eatonville, Florida Mayor Anthony Grant was convicted of a felony charge of voting fraud and misdemeanor absentee voting violations. Prosecutors said that as a candidate in 2015, Grant coerced absentee voters to cast ballots for him. In at least one case, prosecutors said, Grant personally solicited an absentee vote from a nonresident. Grant, a former mayor, lost the in-person vote but won the election with more than twice the number of absentee ballots that incumbent Bruce Mount got. After Grant’s indictment, then-Gov. Rick Scott suspended the mayor. After his conviction, he was sentenced to 400 hours of community service and four years’ probation.
This case was more than a decade after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded: “The absentee ballot is the ‘tool of choice’ for those who are engaging in election fraud.”
This 1998 report came after the department concluded an investigation of Miami’s mayoral election the year before. A judge had thrown out the result after prosecutors brought a massive fraud case that involved more than 5,000 absentee ballots.
- In 2017, an Alabama state judge reversed the result of a race for Wetumpka City Council in which incumbent Percy Gill appeared to have won by three votes. Gill’s opponent, Lewis Washington, contested the outcome. A trial showed eight absentee ballots cast for Gill either had a forged signature or weren’t notarized or signed in front of the requisite number of witnesses.
- In the 2016 race for mayor of Gordon, Alabama, Elbert Melton won by just 16 votes. Melton later was convicted on two counts of absentee ballot fraud and removed from office. He was sentenced to a year in prison and two years’ probation.
- In 2016, Missouri state Rep. Penny Hubbard won the 2016 Democratic primary in the state’s 78th House District by just 90 votes. Her opponent, Bruce Franks Jr., contested the outcome over a lopsided absentee vote tally. Judge Rex Burlison ruled that enough improper absentee ballots were cast to change the results and ordered a new election. Franks won by 1,533 votes.
- In 2016 in Texas, former Weslaco city commissioner Guadalupe Rivera pleaded guilty to one count of providing illegal “assistance” to a voter in a 2013 race he won by 16 votes. Rivera admitted filling out an absentee ballot “in a way other than the way the voter directed or without direction from the voter.” A judge determined that 30 ballots were cast illegally and ordered a new election, which Rivera lost. He initially faced 16 related charges, but 15 were dropped as part of a plea deal. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine.
- In 2015, Fernando Gonzalez clinched a win by 10 votes over Sergio Dias for a seat on the city council of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. After a determination that at least 13 absentee ballots were cast illegally, a state Superior Court overturned the results and ordered a new election. The second time, Gonzalez won by nine votes.
- New York State Assembly candidate Hector Ramirez pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of a forged instrument during his 2014 campaign. Prosecutors charged Ramirez with deceiving voters into giving their absentee ballots to his campaign on the false premise that it would submit them. Instead, Ramirez’s campaign inserted his name on at least 35 absentee ballots, prosecutors said. Ramirez initially won, but a recount determined that he lost by two votes. Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett ruled that Ramirez could not run for office again for three years.
- In 2014 in Pennsylvania, Richard Allen Toney, the former police chief of Harmar Township, pleaded guilty to illegally soliciting absentee ballots to benefit his wife and her running mate in the 2009 Democratic primary for town council. Prosecutors said Toney applied for the ballots, then had them filled out illegally by individuals who were not expected to be absent on Election Day. The absentee ballot count flipped the primary results, securing a victory for his wife’s running mate. During a subsequent FBI investigation, prosecutors said, Toney attempted to prevent two grand jury witnesses and others from testifying. He was sentenced to three years’ probation.
- After a 2012 federal investigation of a voter fraud conspiracy in West Virginia, Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman and County Clerk Donald Whitten pleaded guilty to stuffing ballot boxes and falsifying absentee ballots to try to steal a Democratic primary election in 2010. Lincoln County Commissioner Thomas Ramey pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. Bowman and Ramey were involved in helping Whitten get re-elected. He won the primary but a judge overturned the election, tossing out 300 fraudulent ballots.
- One of the more complex cases arose in a rural jurisdiction when the Justice Department brought a civil suit against Noxubee County, Mississippi over a massive absentee voter fraud operation run by the local Democratic Party machine. Prosecutors said notaries paid by the machine took ballots from mail boxes and voted the ballots in place of the intended voters.
On June 29, 2007, U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee issued an opinion finding that county Democratic Party Chairman Ike Brown worked with the county’s Democratic Executive Committee to manipulate the process. Lee determined that Brown violated Section Two of the Voting Rights Act through racially motivated manipulation of ballots, obtained and improperly counted defective absentee ballots, and allowed improper “assistance” of voters to ensure that his favored candidates won.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment. The Justice Department entered into a consent decree with Noxubee County’s superintendent of general elections, administrator of absentee ballots, registrar, and county government to prohibit discriminatory and illegal voting practices and require officials to report such incidents.
“Dozens of contests were overturned there by the state courts,” said Adams, who was involved in the case as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer at the time.
- In 2004, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the results of a mayor’s race in Guntersville after finding that absentee ballots were cast without proper identification and should have been discarded.
- In the 2003 mayor’s race in East Chicago, Indiana, challenger George Pabey defeated eight-term incumbent Robert Patrick on Election Day, but lost by 278 votes after about 2,000 absentee ballots poured in.
Evidence of voter intimidation and vote buying emerged and the Indiana Supreme Court ordered a new election. Pabey won with 65% of the vote, as detailed in the 2008 book “Stealing Elections” by journalist John Fund. The fraud led to at least seven convictions or guilty pleas in 2008, according to the Heritage database.
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Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for The Daily Signal and co-host of “The Right Side of History” podcast. Lucas is also the author of “Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections.”