How Voter-Fraud Hysteria and Partisan Bickering Ate American Election OversightBreaking News
tags: elections, voting rights
Underlying the budget cuts and attacks on the commission lay a deeper problem: A growing dispute over the basic machinery of democracy. Voting methods once thought routine, like absentee ballots, became grist for partisan bickering. The escalating fight over voter fraud has crippled the EAC [Elections Assistance Commission], often sabotaging its most dedicated commissioners while emboldening those who are less effective.
A U.S. Senate race in 2000 helped spawn the voter fraud hysteria — and launch the careers of key figures on both sides of the debate. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was running a close race against incumbent Republican John Ashcroft. Three weeks before the election, Carnahan’s plane crashed in wet, foggy weather into a hilltop near St. Louis. Everyone aboard was killed, including Carnahan; his son, Randy, who piloted the private plane; and Carnahan’s former chief of staff.
The repercussions were unprecedented. It was too late to remove Carnahan’s name from the ballot, but his widow, Jean, became the unofficial candidate. The acting governor, formerly the lieutenant governor, announced he would nominate her for the seat if her late husband won the election. The campaign mailed out thousands of “I’m Still With Mel!” buttons, volunteers turned up by the hundreds and a swell of empathy for the plucky widow swept through Missouri voters. Mel Carnahan became the first senator to win posthumously, and Jean Carnahan became Missouri’s first female senator.
Hovland was a young staffer on the Carnahan campaign. Devastated by the candidate’s death, he worked 20-hour days, “waking up with calf cramps in the middle of the night, just in agony,” he recalled in the first of three two-hour phone interviews. The victory exhilarated him. “In a career where you see a lot of astroturfing and the sort of the things that can make you cynical about politics, this was really a rare, genuine moment of all these people who were coming out because they wanted to do something, wanted to be a part of something, wanted to say thank you because Gov. Carnahan had made a difference in their lives,” he said.
Ashcroft, though, was humiliated and convinced that only cheating could explain his loss. Once Bush appointed him U.S. attorney general, he initiated years of intense investigations into voter fraud. These probes found next to nothing, but three lawyers who worked on them at the DOJ would become leading voter fraud conspiracy theorists: Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams and Kris Kobach. Von Spakovsky uses his perch as manager of the election law reform initiative at the Heritage Foundation to prod Republican legislators and secretaries of state to supply examples of voter fraud to a database. Adams runs the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which sues jurisdictions over largely exaggerated claims of bloated voter rolls, which he claims will lead to fraudulent voting. As Kansas’ secretary of state from 2011 to 2019, Kobach restricted voting rights and headed Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission. He’s now running for a U.S. Senate seat.
Even as Ashcroft ramped up his voter fraud investigations, he largely protected the EAC, whose chair, DeGregorio, was a fellow Missouri Republican. But after Ashcroft left his post in 2005, von Spakovsky began badgering DeGregorio.
“He put some heat on me to be more partisan, indicating I was just too bipartisan,” DeGregorio said. “I started getting pressure from people to issue an opinion a certain way or take a more partisan stand, or to not go along with the Democrats so much in the Commission because we had too many unanimous votes.”
In 2007, the EAC hired two respected researchers to study voter fraud. But after they found little evidence of a problem, the commission decided not to adopt their report, saying the extent of voter fraud was open to interpretation. Von Spakovsky had emailed the EAC multiple times to complain about the project and the researchers. Von Spakovsky, who did not respond to questions for this article, told the media and congressional investigators at the time that his communications with the agency were appropriate and that it wasn’t unusual for the DOJ to work with the EAC.
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