Amidst the tempests of late September, the 2012 campaign this last week was hit by a thunderclap of schadenfreude, as the Republican Party, which has been using baseless claims of voter fraud to disenfranchise voters around the country, was itself embroiled in a scandal involving voter registration fraud. The story centers on a firm called Strategic Allied Consulting employed by the Republican National Committee to do voter registration work in Florida and other states. And the man behind Strategic is someone longtime TPM Readers will definitely remember: Nathan Sproul.
Now, before going any further, let’s clarify one point. Voter registration fraud is not vote fraud. The first is relatively common in the US and the later is extremely rare. And while both are criminal offenses and should be they are apples and oranges when it comes to affecting the outcome of elections.
Vote fraud is what most of us think of: voting twice, voting when you’re not eligible to vote, stuffing ballot boxes with phony ballots and so forth. Voter registration fraud is registering people to vote who don’t exist or signing up legitimate voters without their signatures or permission and so forth. Big difference.
Ironically it’s been Republicans, in their effort to pass vote-suppressing voter ID laws, who’ve intentionally conflated the two (often with the help of ignorant reporters). To be clear, just because you register Mickey Mouse or Mary Poppins to vote doesn’t mean they’re going to show up to vote. Indeed, they’re not going to. Because they don’t exist. And even when it’s John Smith or Party Morgan, conspirators don’t show up to vote in those people’s name either. There’s abundant evidence and simple logic that attests to this. Most of what voter registration fraud does is clog up voting lists with phony names.
So why does it happen? For a reason Republicans should readily understand: incentives. Parties and organizations hire people to register voters. And the work doesn’t go to credentialed specialists in voter registration. The work either goes to enthusiastic volunteers or people paid relatively low amounts of money — sometimes by the hour or even by the registration — to register as many people as possible. As you might expect, some people decide they don’t want to spend the immense amount of work it takes to register 100 actual voters and just sit down with a hundred forms and fill the forms out themselves, maybe by reading names from the phone book or your latest Disney film. That’s particularly the case when people are paid by the form or given quotas — something which many states now outlaw for just this reason.
This is at the root of what got ACORN in trouble. They were often sloppy and hired people who weren’t reliable. But most of the “fraud” uncovered in their work were fraudulent registrations they themselves discovered when they reviewed the forms and then reported to authorities. (An organization is not allowed to just toss registration forms they believe may be fraudulent. You have to turn them in regardless.) It is for this reason that voter registration fraud is often best seen as a fraud against the organization paying to register voters.
In any case, that’s what voter registration fraud is. To be emphatically clear, it is a crime and should be a crime. But it is very important to understand what it is and what it isn’t, even in the midst of the schadenfreude many experience watching Republicans who’ve bamboozled the public about this very issue being hoisted on their own petard.
All that said, Mr. Sproul isn’t just any bad actor. As longtime TPM Readers know, back in 2004 he was credibly accused of doing something far more nefarious: impersonating Democratic-leaning groups, registering as many Democrats as possible and then destroying those legitimate registrations rather than turning them into local canvassing boards. This wouldn’t create fraudulent ballots but it would convince a lot of legitimate voters that they were registered only to show up at the ballot box and realize they weren’t — thus effectively blocking their Democratic votes.
Having watched this game for a longtime I have little doubt Sproul is a bad actor — his name has repeatedly come up with either the sloppiest methods or gambits which seem intended not simply to pump up fees but to stop Democrats from voting, as in 2004. And there’s at least some suggestion now that the RNC asked Sproul to create new legal entities so it wouldn’t be cleared it was him — with his besmirched reputation — they were hiring.
More on this story soon. But again, voter registration fraud is not vote fraud. The truth counts.