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Okay. Here's one way the White House says it was involved in the firing of U.S. attorneys. President Bush, among others, relayed complaints that the prosecutors were not aggressive enough in pursuing Republican claims of voter fraud.

Those claims are often hard to prove. And they've become the focus of partisan debate, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: John McKay, the former U.S. attorney for the Western district of Washington, says he was surprised when the White House raised Republican complaints that he'd mishandled the state's close 2004 gubernatorial election. He told NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED last week that the issue came up during a meeting he had in September with White House counsel Harriet Miers about a federal judgeship he had applied for.

Mr. JOHN MCKAY (Former U.S. Attorney): I was surprised because the case was so clear.

FESSLER: The case involved allegations of voter fraud in a race narrowly lost by the Republican candidate. McKay says his office thoroughly reviewed every allegation and every piece of evidence submitted in a state court case to overturn the election.

Mr. MCKAY: We concurred with the state trial court judge that there was no evidence, and let me just emphasize, zero evidence of election voter fraud in that election. And so we, in consultation with the Voting Rights Section of the Department of Justice, and fully documented with the Department of Justice, concluded that there should be no further federal investigation on the election.

FESSLER: For example, he says, there was evidence that convicted felons voted even though they're not allowed to under state law. But it turns out that the state had mailed them their ballots, making it difficult to prove that the felons willfully had broken the law. Former U.S. attorney David Iglesias also concluded, after an investigation, that voter fraud complaints in New Mexico were, quote, "not criminally prosecutable." Lorraine Minnite of Barnard College says that's the problem. In the complicated, sometimes messy world of elections, things aren't always what they seem.

Professor LORRAINE MINNITE (Barnard College): When we actually look for evidence that voters are criminally corrupting the electoral process, we just don't find a lot of evidence of that.

FESSLER: She says proving cases of fraud are extremely rare. For example, Republicans alleged widespread double voting in recent elections in both New Jersey and Connecticut. But investigations found no sign of fraud. Minnite, along with many Democrats, thinks that Republicans exaggerate the extent of the problem to drum up support for proposals to restrict access to the polls, such as a requirement that voters show ID.

Prof. MINNITE: It makes it difficult for people to sort out what is a problem, you know, what is a real threat to the electoral process, how much of this is happening, who's doing it. And they get confused.

FESSLER: But Republicans say there is evidence of fraud and that the potential for fraud is a very serious problem.

Representative STEVE KING (Republican, Iowa): I believe there's at least an element of fraud in every single state.

FESSLER: Congressman Steve King of Iowa admits much of this evidence is anecdotal, but he says there's a lot of it. He says there's no question a federal law encouraging people to sign up to vote when applying for a driver's license has allowed some non-citizens onto the registration rolls.

Rep. KING: We have to pledge in the negative that you do not want to register to vote under motor voter. That's the wrong kind of incentive. And that opens up the polls to people who don't have a right to vote here.

FESSLER: He cited an audit in Utah that found that several hundred non-citizens have registered to vote there. He said 14 had actually cast ballots. Other Republicans note the conviction in Missouri of three people for submitting false voter applications last year, and they cite Justice Department figures showing 87 convictions for ballot frauds since 2002.

Republicans say Democrats don't want to acknowledge the extent of the problem because they fear that any solution will cost them votes. Doug Chapin of the nonpartisan electionline.org says the fact is no one really knows how much voter fraud is out there.

Mr. DOUG CHAPIN (Electionline.org): The suspicion frequently outstrips the evidence. What we don't know is whether or not the suspicion is unfounded or the evidence is as yet uncovered.

FESSLER: He adds that there isn't even an agreed upon definition of voter fraud, further complicating any debate over whether or not enough is being done to stop it.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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