The recent report by Election Integrity Maryland that there may be as many as 164 individuals who voted in both Maryland and Virginia in the 2012 election hasn't exactly caused the Maryland Board of Elections to press the panic button. There's a reason for that: The numbers don't prove fraud and more likely point to clerical error.
That's not to suggest the Fairfax County Electoral Board should not seek criminal investigation, as officials announced last week, into 17 possible cases of duplicate voting in that Northern Virginia county — such due diligence is entirely appropriate — but the chances that such incidents will result in fraud convictions are slim. If there's one thing experience has taught, it's that duplicate voter registration is almost always the result of nothing more nefarious than people moving from one state to another and registration rolls not being expunged in a timely manner.
Trumped up horror stories about voting irregularities have fueled a Republican-led push to enact voter identification laws that are far more likely to discourage voting, particularly by young, elderly and minority voters who are less likely to have government-approved ID, than it is to uncover organized (or even disorganized) attempts to alter election outcomes. Voter fraud is not unknown, it's simply uncommon.
So what is going on exactly when you have nearly 44,000 people who hold dual registrations in Maryland and Virginia? In Maryland, it means that newly-registered voters likely failed to indicate on their registration forms where they lived previously. Had they done so, authorities in Virginia would have been notified to drop those individuals from the voter rolls.
People living in the Washington, D.C. area change their state of residence all the time. It's commonplace for an individual to move from Montgomery County, Md. to Fairfax County, Va. or the District of Columbia and back again in a few years' time. Meanwhile, the voter rolls are only expunged if the state has been notified by the voter, the person has died (in which case there's a shared database called the Electronic Registration Information Center that may come into play) or hasn't voted in several elections in which case the registration may become inactive.
But what about the 164 who may have actually voted in both places? Again, this is often due to clerical error. Audits reveal that claims of fraud are often overstated because a vote has been wrongly accounted for. John T. Smith was checked in by a volunteer election judge as John P. Smith or John T. Smith Jr. or maybe Jane Smith because she's next to him on the rolls. Sometimes, people with the same name even have the same birthdays. Double-voting also might be deliberate but not malicious — an elderly person voting in one state and sending in an absentee vote in the other because he or she wasn't certain which would count.
That sounds laughable, but veterans of election boards say stranger things happen. There's as much human error in the accounting of votes as there is in any human enterprise. If perfection was easy, the Motor Vehicle Administration, U.S. Postal Service and Internal Revenue Service wouldn't get so much bad press.
Of course, actual voter fraud should be prosecuted. We've argued before that the Maryland Office of State Prosecutor, the agency responsible for prosecuting such cases in this state, has too often been reluctant to investigate irregularities with its admittedly limited resources. While the logic of such decisions was understandable as the chances of serious wrongdoing are slight, voters require the assurance that evidence of such behavior is at least investigated for possible criminal impropriety.
Still, the bigger mistake would be to see allegations of possible double voting as evidence to support a voter ID law. Not only would such a restriction be useless in cases of double voting, as there's no claim that voters misrepresented themselves, but the effect of such laws would be the equivalent of using a sledgehammer on a fly — potentially suppressing thousands of votes to discourage the rarity of actual fraud, which was estimated at .000009 percent after a review of alleged double-voting in New York after the 2002 and 2004 elections turned up only two incidents, according to a 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Right wing organizations like to scream from the rooftops about voter fraud because reducing turnout, particularly by minority groups, can turn a close election in the GOP's favor. That's not to suggest Maryland or any state tolerate fraud, but the possible remedies should not be worse than the problem. This latest allegation of double-voting merits inquiry — as authorities in Virginia are already doing — but not necessarily any more than that.
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