Caging and vote-fraud zombies: Montana defeats scam, plus CPI nonsense

Chris Lowe

The Western States Center (Dan Petegorsky's fine organization) has an encouraging story about the defeat of a voter suppression effort in Montana by Republicans, which not only didn't work but backfired so badly that the RP executive director resigned and fled the state. The short version is that the Montana Republicans tried a variant of vote or voter caging based not on sending mail marked "do not forward" and challenging voters whose addresses have changed, but instead on using a U.S. Postal Service change of address list to challenge 6000 voters in seven counties. Their scheme elicited both threats of legal action and public outrage sufficient to force the Rs to put the effort back in their bag of tricks. What they were mumbling as they slunk away wasn't intelligible to observers. The full story at the WSC website is worth a read.

Closer to home, our own beloved and percipient Cascade Policy Institute hasn't yet tried to deny anyone's right to vote, as far as we know. They have, however, engaged in a supply-side effort to lower the Halloween price of organic garden fertilizer by hawking for free scary tales of dead voters being turned into fraud zombies. Since electoral integrity is a serious matter, the CPI's suspicions bear scrutiny, except it turns out they can't.

As pointed out in the "In the news" item linked above, The Oregonian reported the CPI's "charge" that Oregon voter rolls "may" include over 6000 dead people in a letter from CPI "chief investigator" Jeff Alan to state Elections Division Director John Lindback, along with Elections Division responses. Interestingly, the letter does not appear on the CPI's website, nor does Jeff Alan appear on their staff page, though he's written several items since August. All quotes here are from the article in The Oregonian.

How did CPI identify the names it supplied to the Elections Division? With

a comparison of names and dates of birth of Oregon registered voters with the Social Security Death Master File, a list of more than 84 million deceased Americans.

But CPI did not do the work themselves. Rather, it was subcontracted to an outfit in Chicago in a manner which, from the group's name and the description in The Oregonian, may be part of a wider concerted national effort by conservative groups to raise anxiety about "voter fraud":

The comparison was done by the Sam Adams Alliance, another libertarian group based in Chicago. Alan said Cascade commissioned the Chicago group to do the work after recently learning that it was doing similar comparisons for other states with computer technology it has developed.

Pursuant to the CPI letter, the Elections Division investigated:

[A]fter matching the 6,142 names supplied by Cascade with the state voter registration database ... Lindback said 4,998 of the names are classified as inactive or canceled voters and were not mailed ballots for the Nov. 4 general election. He said his staff randomly called 37 of the 1,144 remaining people who were classified as active voters and found that 16, or 43 percent, are alive and 21, or 57 percent, are deceased.

Lindback said that if that ratio held for the full list of 1,144 active voters that Cascade said may be dead, it would mean that ballots were mailed to about 650 deceased voters among Oregon's more than 2.1 million active registered voters.

According to The Oregonian, the Elections Division classifies voters as "inactive" when they have not voted in five years, or if the Division "learns of a change in their status":

Most often this occurs when ballots are returned to a county elections office because a voter has moved and has not updated his voter registration information.

In contrast, "[d]eceased voters are listed as canceled voters." Although the story does not say so, it seems possible that voters who move to another state may also be "canceled" voters.

One other relevant piece of information: "Inactive voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to update the information and receive a ballot." According to the Secretary of State's website, to update registration information a registered voter must submit a new registration card with appropriate identification. This can be done by mail but presumably would need to be done in person close to an election to ensure getting a new registration card and ballot.

It is on the basis of all of the foregoing that the CPI's Jeff Alan is quoted as saying: "We believe this has the potential for voter fraud being that Oregon is a vote-by-mail state," referring to the submitted 6142 names of possibly dead, possibly actively registered Oregon voters.

In fact the potential for systematic voter fraud involving these 6142 names appears to be virtually nil.

To make systematic fraud out of this, someone would have to think to make the same database cross-referencing CPI/Sam Adams Alliance did, identify the 6142 names, then somehow get hold of the ballots. Of those, we know that roughly 5000 were classified as either inactive or canceled and were not sent ballots. Note that the fact that some of the names were canceled means that CPI started out misidentifying some registrations.

Now, presumably when Director Lindback had the names checked, elections division workers were able to batch search the names on an automated basis, and sort them by registration status (active, inactive, canceled). Likewise, it appears that CPI was able to get a listing of all Oregon registered voters with dates of birth, in order for the Sam Adams Alliance to do its cross-referencing, but that listing must not have included registration status, for it it had, surely they would have excluded at least the canceled (deceased or moved out of state) names, right? Since we're assuming this is an honest public-spirited effort, of course.

So a first obstacle our putative fraudsters would face would be getting mass detailed registration data that the CPI either didn't or couldn't get, to sort the inactive and canceled registrations corresponding to the Social Security death database from active but possibly dead registrations. Let us assume for a moment that they are efficient and manage this somehow, and that they focus on the remaining 1100 active registrations that seem to correspond to people identified as dead in the Social Security database, for whom ballots will have been mailed out.

What do we have then? First, if Lindback's sample is to be believed, perhaps 40% of those names correspond to living voters, whom the Sam Adams Alliance misidentified as dead. Again notice that there appear to be serious problems, not to say severe ones, with the methodology employed.

Anything like a 40% not-really-dead count would seem likely to lead to failed efforts to get hold of the ballots of actually-alive real voters, whom one might think would object to someone coming to their house to ask for their ballot. One might even think they'd raise a stink about it. And assuming that they're distributed more or less like other voters, one might think that about 30% of them would be Republicans, many already alerted to the putative dangers of voter fraud, some of whom would surely expose the nefarious activity (assuming, as all such charges implicitly do, that the fraud is committed not by Republicans but their opponents).

Second, for the 650 actually-dead actively registered voters, there will be some significant proportion of widows or widowers or children who maybe receive ballots for deceased spouses or parents, or perhaps nursing home operators who do, or new owners or renters of their former homes. Now, let's assume, implausibly, for the sake of argument, that all such recipients are dishonest and decide to cast extra votes. Will all widows and widowers and adult children and nursing home operators and successor tenants vote the same way? No. So even if the assumption were true, such individualized voter fraud by persons receiving the ballots wouldn't lead to systematic skewing, unless you posit that the number in the hands of the dishonest nursing home operators was bigger, and probably that would skew R. Or perhaps there are secret Democratic e-mail lists, accessible only through a code discoverable only with the zombie voter decoder rings distributed to all registered Democrats on their 50th birthdays in preparation for widowhood, whose instructions the brainwashed dupes of course follow implicitly. Bwahahahaha.

Seriously though, to get systematic skewing, you'd need to have someone trying to get hold of the extra ballots systematically. Is there any evidence of that? No.

But assume it's happening anyway. How would it work? Most likely with an offer to buy the ballots, though perhaps there could be appeals to ideology. But again, the widows and widowers and children and nursing home operators and successor tenants won't have the same political views, so if a D or R oriented operative comes around, surely there are going to be some refusals and reports of the fraud efforts to police or elections authorities -- unless we assume 100% venality or financial desperation, and no regard at all for party or ideology, never mind simple honest concern for the public good and the integrity of elections. This seems implausible.

Tracking down such ballots at their addresses and bribing or cajoling people to hand them over would also be incredibly labor intensive, again implausibly so. These 650 names will be spread out over the 36 counties. The likelihood of them making a difference in a election would be tiny. Putting the same resources into GOTV would be much more efficient.

The only other way for there to be systematic fraud coming out of the 1100 actively registered supposedly dead voters would be for there to be corruption in the elections division itself. (In principle, if we're going to posit such corruption, perhaps the inactive registrations of possibly-dead people could be re-included, reregistered at new fake addresses but mailed by the fraudsters. However, unless we think John Lindback is lying, that would be a hypothetical for another year, since he says the inactive registrants were not mailed ballots this year.)

But consider what such corruption would require. The reason Director Lindback had a sample of 37 checked was that someone had to try to contact each person (one suspects he had 50 checked with 13 no responses, since 37 is such a strange number). So for a corrupt use of the ballots associated with names cross-referenced with the Social Security death database, someone other than the Sam Adams Alliance would have to do the same cross-referencing (though maybe they've been saved that step now, if they have access to the names CPI sent in). Then they'd have to find out which of those names really were dead, not by sampling but by reaching all of whatever portion of the total it was decided to weed out -- at least 1100 attempted contacts. Then those ballots, for individuals spread across the 36 counties, would have to be sequestered from getting mailed out. A single fraudster would have somehow to cast all 650 or more all by himself or herself, or be involved in a corrupt conspiracy to hand them off to other fraudsters. All done in a way that the fraudulent signatures involved looked like those of the deceased. And then the ballots would have to get to the county elections offices -- the part vote-by-mail is supposed to make easy, I guess.

So where are we? Given the implausibility of any of the individual level scenarios for systematic fraud with deliberate, organized partisan skew, to say that there is a substantial risk of systematic fraud amounts to saying there is a substantial risk of a corrupt conspiracy within the Elections Division.

Moreover, that conspiracy would have to be so wide that the unusual procedures which would be needed to identify actual dead people with active registrations, and to make sure their ballots were separated and not actually mailed with the others, but only later, after fraudulent voting and signing, all could go undetected and unreported by anyone within the Division not in on the conspiracy. Plus we must assume good enough forging to get past county elections workers.

The scenario seems laughable. It might or might not be the case that the top of the Division is politically appointed, but I assume that most Elections Divisions workers are career civil servants, not all from one party. Probably many if not most of them are proud of their work and the integrity of the system.

And frankly, if we postulate a level of corruption so thorough in the Elections Division, one wonders why they'd bother fiddling with dead people at all? Much simpler just to register fictional voters at fictional addresses and hold back their ballots to vote with, one would think.

I suppose there's a remote chance that the CPI genuinely has such a warped paranoid outlook that they actually believe such a conspiracy possible. It's tempting to say it would fit with their perspicuousness on other matters. But that's just a temptation to make a snarky joke.

In reality, Occam's Razor points to CPI being in this case intellectually dishonest, acting as covertly partisan hack propagandists, apparently out to provide a counter to concerns about well-documented actual efforts at voter suppression by Republicans, in line with a strategy exercised by more overtly partisan Republican forces around the country. The choice to focus on dead fraud-zombie voters really is an appeal to ghoulishness, and to stories we've all heard about old-time big city machine politics, often Democratic machines.

Moreover, when we see what it would actually take to commit systematic fraud on any kind of scale using these names, i.e. massive official corruption, it seems the CPI folks are willing to impugn the integrity of Oregon's electoral civil servants without any evidence, in order to further their hackery.

Ugly and shameful.

Oh, one last thought. Let's assume again, for the sake of argument, that somebody were trying to pull off such an idiotic, labor-intensive, costly and risky scheme for a a few hundred or at most a few thousand votes spread across the entire state. Who's gone furthest in doing the preliminary spadework needed to identify potential fraud zombie voters?

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    In reality, Occam's Razor points to CPI being in this case intellectually dishonest

    Chris--you could have made that the lede and that's all I'd have needed to read. :)

  • kevin finnerty (unverified)

    All you need to know about the Cascade Policy Institute is that they employ a child-abusing and Hurricane Katrina-celebrating walking piece of cow filth like Matt Wingard.

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    Chris, were you able to dig up anything on the Sam Adams Alliance and their connection to other "voter fraud" scams? I looked around for a little while via Google, but didn't immediately see anything. Given that you're generally more thorough than I (and everyone else), I thought you might have the goods on them.

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    People outside of Oregon don't seem to understand the amount of checking that goes into our election system. They seem to think you get a ballot and vote it and there's no check to make sure you are indeed the correct voter. When in fact every employee is given training in signature matching and every single ballot's signature is verified - no sampling, no skipping a ballot.

    When I lived in Texas, all I had to show was my printed voter card. Had I been deceased, someone in my household could have used that card (which would have been mailed to my home) to vote without any problem. Heck, my parents still get voter cards for me and my husband ever single year, even though we've been gone for more than 8 years and they've been told multiple times that we've moved out of state.

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)

    We should get Matt Singer, from Forward Montana and blogging fame, to post a guest column on the Montana story and its's interesting stuff.

  • pat malach (unverified)

    Some highlights from the judge who heard the case in Montana:

    "The timing of these challenges is so transparent that it defies common sense to believe the purpose is anything but political chicanery," wrote U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy. "One can imagine the mischief an immature political operative could inject into an election cycle were he to use the statutes, not for their intended purpose of protecting the integrity of the people's democracy, but rather to execute a tawdry political ploy."
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    I think its a fantastic idea to have Matt Singer do a guest post here on this issue. It would be also be great to expand the theme to the other areas of the country experiencing voter suppression due to GOP efforts.

    Robert Kennedy Jr and Greg Palast had a superb piece in Rolling Stone on the different ways Republicans attempt to block votes and voting:

    The GOP in Ohio were also engaging in suppression efforts. The SCOTUS recently knocked that back:

    And a GOP voter purge program in Michigan has also been killed in the courts:

  • Matt Singer (unverified)

    We've worked on some writeups on what we did to expose, push back on, and eventually stop the challenges here in Montana. We'd be happy to share when we've got something a bit more formal -- obviously, we're also hard at work with our elections as well.

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    And to add to Carla's examples, the voter suppression crowd also suffered setbacks in Wisconsin and Indiana

  • Fireslayer (unverified)

    Good work Chris.

    How about the link to the Montana caging effort. We would like to know why and how this backfired.

    Is it possible that the people with changed addresses re-registered? Were they known people in their communities? In places like Texas the precinct judges tend to know a great many voters and rarely ask for ID.

    <h2>Did they challenge a lot of Republicans too?</h2>

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