Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 | 2 a.m.
With the vitriolic 2010 U.S. Senate race coming to a close, both parties are making allegations typical of every campaign’s final days: Republicans say Democrats are engaging in voter fraud by manufacturing fictional votes and offering bribes to lure voters to the polls, while Democrats say Republicans are trying to intimidate blacks and Hispanics to keep them from voting.
Here’s what you need to know, at least for now: Neither side can offer convincing evidence of its charges.
• As for Republicans’ allegations of ballot high jinks, election authorities say they have found no evidence of fraud — and note that offering burgers and doughnuts to voters isn’t a crime. “It’s hard to buy an election with a hamburger,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quipped Tuesday.
• As for the Democrats’ claim that GOP challenger Sharron Angle is attempting to scare away minority voters, the allegation is also unproven. (But it was big news last week when Latinos for Reform produced ads admonishing Hispanics to withhold their votes as a protest for Democrats’ failure to change immigration laws. Although the organization isn’t affiliated with her campaign, Angle has refused to denounce the ads while both gubernatorial candidates — Republican Brian Sandoval and Democrat Rory Reid — did denounce them.)
These last-minute salvos began Tuesday, after Sun columnist Jon Ralston reported that Angle’s campaign had sent a fundraising letter to Republican supporters with sketchy charges about Reid and his allies trying to buy votes. “Harry Reid has been offering free food and, according to other reports, some Democratic allies such as teachers’ unions are offering gift cards in return for a vote for Reid.”
State law allows campaigns or political parties to offer food to anyone who votes, giving employees time off to vote and offering voters rides to the polls.
Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the Nevada State Education Association, said the teachers union was giving Starbucks gift cards to volunteer organizers, not to individual voters.
Coffee and doughnuts was the entirety of the substance of the Angle allegations, although not the rhetoric. Political fundraising letters almost always play on fear as a chief check-writing motivator, and this one was no different, calling distribution of food and coffee “ACORN-style tactics.”
Adding, “THESE are the kinds of shenanigans that can turn this race. Harry Reid intends to steal this election if he can’t win it outright.”
ACORN, the now-defunct community activist group, has the hyperventilating effect on Republicans that a name like Karl Rove has on Democrats. According to one credible poll, a majority of Republicans believes the outcome of the 2008 election, won by President Barack Obama by 8 million votes, was the result of a vast ACORN conspiracy.
Like any conspiracy charge, there’s a bit of freshwater in an otherwise polluted lake of falsity: Before the 2008 election, the Nevada secretary of state’s office, FBI and U.S. attorney general’s office formed an Election Integrity Taskforce. That task force arrested and charged two ACORN advisers in Las Vegas for paying voter-registration workers on a quota system. Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller said the local field director has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the regional field director. The trial starts in November.
The crime, however, was related to registration fraud, falsely registering voters, which is relatively easy to commit but has no effect on an election. Actual voter fraud — either manipulating polling machines or getting someone to go to a polling place and claim he’s someone he’s not — is much more difficult to pull off and probably can’t swing an election.
In a 2008 interview with Salon, Barnard College political scientist Lorraine Minnite said that nationwide, just 20 people were found guilty of voting while ineligible, although five were guilty of voting twice. That’s just 25 convictions across the country in two election cycles involving more than 120 million votes.
Larry Lomax, Clark County registrar of voters, said that after every election, his office may find a few people who attempt to vote twice. He said they are usually confused, older voters. Nevertheless, his office forwards the cases to District Attorney David Roger, who never prosecutes because the voter didn’t intend anything criminal.
“If I knew of election fraud, we would stop it,” Lomax said. “I’m not aware that it’s the big deal some people claim it is.”
What about the electronic voting machines? Can they be rigged?
Across the country, many whistle-blowers have credibly questioned the integrity of electronic voting machines. Professor J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan once turned an electronic voting machine into a game of “Pac-Man.” But millions of real and test votes have been cast in Nevada since the machines were introduced, without much controversy.
KVVU Channel 5, the Fox affiliate, carried this thinly sourced report of problems with voting machines in Boulder City: “Voter Joyce Ferrara said when (she) went to vote for Republican Sharron Angle, her Democratic opponent, Sen. Harry Reid’s name was already checked. Ferrara said she wasn’t alone in her voting experience. She said her husband and several others voting at the same time all had the same thing happen.”
Lomax said the woman seems not to have told anyone at the Boulder City polling place.
“I have talked to workers out there, and if this occurred, it was never brought to the attention of the workers or poll watchers. So this lady who made the claim never complained at the polling place. She apparently went home and called Fox 5.”
Lomax noted that the machines can be quite sensitive, causing voters to accidentally mark the wrong candidate, but that the machines provide ample opportunity for changing to the desired choice.
As for wholesale software manipulation, Lomax said the software is validated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, certified by Republican and Democratic state parties, copied and sent to a vault in the secretary of state’s office.
“The machines won’t even do what this lady claims,” Lomax said.
“To commit meaningful election fraud, significant enough to sway an election — it would be extremely difficult to do and keep secret. I don’t even know how it would work,” Lomax said.
Nevertheless, Republicans are pushing the charge on another front: In a detailed 44-page letter, a lawyer for the Nevada Republican Party demanded Miller investigate discrepancies in early voting tabulations that the party claims to have uncovered.
The letter outlines a series of small differences — one or two votes — between voter sign-in sheets and the ballots cast on the electronic voting machines in Clark and Washoe counties.
Miller said such discrepancies occur every election cycle.
“We last had to explain these issues to the Obama campaign,” he said. “Those discrepancies, by and large, are elderly election officials who worked a 16-hour day and make a clerical error.”
Miller said sometimes voters will sign in and leave before casting a ballot, a phenomenon called a “fled voter.”
Nevertheless, he said he has asked the head of his securities division to investigate the Republicans’ complaint. “She’s an attorney with a law enforcement background, independent from my elections division,” he said.
Angle and the Republicans have good reasons to make the allegations, no matter how wispy their evidence. It motivates an enraged base, in this case with an explicit appeal for money. And, the allegations sow the seeds of doubt if the campaign loses narrowly enough to challenge the validity of the election. Angle has done so in the past.
In response to Angle’s accusations, the Reid campaign decided to fight noise with noise, including this charge:
Angle’s operatives are flooding polling places to intimidate voters, handing out literature to suppress the vote, and running ads encouraging minority voters to stay away from the polls altogether.
Just as the Republican allegations of voter fraud are meant to conjure images of cigar-chomping Chicagoans stuffing the box for John F. Kennedy, so Democratic charges of Republican voter suppression offer a particularly emotional appeal, especially to minority voters. Many are old enough to have experienced voter intimidation as young people or to remember images of Southern blacks braving physical beatings to vote.
But the Reid campaign had little to show for its scary rhetoric. Kelly Steele, a spokesman, pointed to effort by Latinos for Reform to run Spanish-language ads encouraging Hispanics not to vote. Aside from that, he said, “Our campaign has an extensive voter protection campaign and a statewide hotline,” but wouldn’t share any details of alleged suppression efforts.
Miller said as in the case of voter fraud, there have been no credible claims of vote suppression.
He said one caller complained that someone was outside a grocery store, yelling for people not to vote, that “they won’t count your vote anyway.” He sent out an investigator to the location, which, it turns out, isn’t even an early voting location. When the investigator called the complainant back, the man admitted that he hadn’t heard it himself — it was his wife’s housekeeper who said she heard it, and it happened days before.
“This is the silly season. I recognize this is an emotional election. We’re getting complaints into our office that amount to no more than hearsay or rumors,” Miller said.
The Sun asked Angle’s campaign if it had more specific allegations about voter fraud. Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen said the campaign is basing its charge on calls made to its “election fraud hotline,” but provided no further details.
Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.