Since 2006, 30 states have passed laws that require voters to show identification at the polls. Advocates argue stricter laws are needed to prevent voting fraud. Opponents reply that voter ID laws will prevent millions of Americans from voting, hurting poor and minority communities most, not to mention U.S. democracy.
Oregon, has sidestepped the controversy –so far. But a group of activists, connected to the right-wing Cascade Policy Institute and the Oregon Tea Party, is trying to change that. The U-Choose Education Forum has issued a six-point criticism of Oregon elections with suggestions it calls, "improvements," – including requiring voter ID.
The move is the first step in a campaign intended to persuade Oregonians that the state's election system is rife with abuse. Next step is a meeting, titled, "When Does 1 and 1 make 3?"
"Learn about the wide-spread possibilities of massive election fraud and what you can do about it!" runs the blurb on the group's website. The meeting is set for 6:30 - 9 p.m., Sept. 26 at 4101 Kruse Way, Lake Oswego.
"First we are surveying all office holders and legislators in the state and asking for their comments," said Chana Cox, a retired Lewis and Clark professor and U-Choose group founder. "We'd like to refine these proposals so they can be passed next session."
Well, pigs might fly. But voter ID is unlikely to get traction in Oregon. Neither Kate Brown nor her opponent in the Secretary of State's race, Knute Buehler, are campaigning on the issue. In fact, both candidates have publicly rejected calls for stricter voter ID, saying that Oregon's signature matching system works as well as any other identification.
"Every signature, on every ballot is checked by highly trained election staff," Brown said in a statement. "A bar code uniquely identifies the ballot for accuracy and the ballot counting process is open for the public to observe."
"Oregon already has Voter ID, it's called our signature," Buehler says on his blog.
The National Battle
Nationally, the Urban League and the NAACP are campaigning strongly against Voter ID laws.
"We've seen more states pass more laws in the past year, pushing more voters out of the ballot box than at any point in the last hundred years," the NAACP's Ben Jealous told Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now show, Sept. 6.
"And you know, it's not simply a Republican thing, because we've seen Rick Snyder, Republican governor of Michigan, veto strict photo ID. We've seen Bob McDonnell of Virginia actually expand the re-enfranchising of formerly incarcerated people in that state and say to his folks, 'Don't even bring me a strict voter ID bill, or I will veto it.' It's an extremist thing. It's a far-right thing. You know, and it's having a real effect on this race, and it will have a real effect come November."
Jealous, along with most progressives and civil rights activists, sees Voter ID as part of the long history of voter suppression efforts aimed at Blacks, Latinos, the elderly and poor people in general, who all are less likely to have state-issued photo ID. They're also part of the Democratic base.
Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania GOP House majority leader, offered ammunition for that view in June. Boasting of his party's accomplishments at a state Republican meeting, he said, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done."
Model legislation from the controversial pressure group ALEC was used to craft several state ID laws. Some of the most restrictive – the Texas law that recognizes gun permits but not school ID, for example – are facing legal challenges. But similar laws in Pennsylvania, Idaho or Louisiana, require voters to show government –issued photo ID.
A Solution in Search of a Problem?
Investigations across the country have found very little evidence of voter fraud, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
"There have been a handful of substantiated cases of individual ineligible voters attempting to defraud the election system. But by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare."
What's more, the report concluded, photo ID laws do nothing to prevent the small amount of fraud that exists. Yet those same laws will exclude "millions of voters," says Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's democracy program.
"There's little justification for those laws," Gaskin says. "I know from my own work that voter fraud just isn't an issue."
Gaskin points to case studies that show voter ID would not have prevented the few cases of fraud that exist.
"If you have someone who is bound and determined to break the law, the answer is enforcement. So the first step is ensuring the existing law is being enforced.
"I think there should be as few barriers between me and my vote as possible."
The Brennan Center's latest report, State Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives," suggests that the real harm to democracy is that too few people are registered to vote.
"At least 51 million — roughly 25 percent — of voting-age Americans are not registered and cannot vote," the report says. "That is equivalent to losing the entire eligible voting population of California, New York, and Texas combined. As of 2010, Census data shows that 37 percent of eligible blacks and 48 percent of eligible Hispanics are not registered to vote."
Oregon Prosecuted Two Cases
In Oregon, just two cases of voter fraud have been substantiated since January 2009. In 2010 Brown's staff investigated allegations that 6,000 dead people had voted. They looked at every case. The result? One single conviction.
In 2011, Lafayette Keaton, 81, was convicted of voting for his dead brother and his son. He also was collecting his brother's social security benefits. Keaton was fined $5000 and sentenced to three months in jail for the voter fraud. That was in addition to jail time for the benefits fraud.
The second case involved a Josephine County man who voted using his brother's ID. He was convicted of four felonies and deported, losing forever his chance to become a citizen.
U-Choose vs Election Officials
The Skanner News also looked at the other five issues raised by the U-Choose Forum
Issue 1: Ballots should include stamped addressed return envelopes.
Why? According to U-Choose, this would be more secure than the drop box system because "tampering with the U.S. mail is a federal offense."
Response: Andrea Cantu-Schomus, Brown's communications director said Oregon's system already is secure and paying for ballot returns would cost too much. "It would add a tremendous cost to our elections," she said. Tim Scott, Multnomah County's director of elections points out that tampering with elections also is a felony offense. "It's just as serious a crime," he says. "We have very few cases of fraud or attempted fraud."
Issue 2: Enforce existing law and destroy all unused ballots at 8 p.m. election day.
Why? According to U-Choose, "It is possible for an unidentified and perhaps "unofficial" person at the counting places to fill them in." And, the group says, the law requires it.
Response: Cantu Schomus says that two parts of the statute are in conflict, as another section of the elections statute requires accounting for each ballot. An attempt to change the wording failed last session, because lawmakers couldn't agree on an unrelated amendment. Elections officials need to have some blank ballots on hand up till the end of polling to ensure that voters who come in to update their registry and vote, at the last minute, can be issued ballots. They are also needed to replicate ballots that can't be read by the machines. All ballots are kept secure, she says. "No one person is ever left alone with live ballots."
Scott says all Multnomah County ballots are kept under lock and key monitored by security cameras that cover every inch of the room. "The security of those ballots is the same as for every ballot in this building." Anyone can ask to observe the count and see for themselves, he says. "We account for every single ballot. The Multnomah County Republicans have witnessed the accounting of these ballots."
Issue 3: Eliminate drop boxes except in polling places on Election Day
Why?: According to U-Choose, "There is no record of how long those ballots are held in limbo and possibly tampered with before being brought in and counted. There is, however, well-documented evidence that at least some of the ballots dropped in drop boxes are not being counted."
Response: Cantu-Schomus says no complaints have been received about uncounted ballots. "We haven't heard anything like that," she says. "Every vote is brought in and every vote is counted. Each of our counties is very confident about their system."
Cantu-Schomus points out that anyone with doubts can track their ballots at "My Vote" on the Oregon Secretary of State's website. All you need to do is enter your name, date of birth and zip code.
Scott rejects the suggestion that the drop box ballots are less secure. Every pickup is made by a bipartisan team of one Democrat and one Republican, he says, In addition, political parties often send observers who follow the pickup team. "Drop boxes are as safe as a Post Office box," he says. "They're essentially are repurposed post office boxes."
Issue 4 : No ballots should be counted before Election Day
Why?: According to U-Choose, people are waiting until election day to vote because "the public has become aware that their ballots are being removed from the sealed secrecy envelopes early and some voters have begun to suspect that their ballots have been tampered with."
Response: "What I see is a lot of anecdotal evidence, but it's not backed up with substantive evidence," Scott says. "I haven't seen any evidence of tampering or ballot destruction."
Issue 5: Electronic Security: Critical mission computers should meet industry-wide security standards including standards for computer isolation.
Why?: According to U-Choose, the Multnomah County computer that tallies the results is open to tampering through its USB ports. "…anyone who has 30 seconds of unobserved access to the personal computer could adjust the programming or directly overwrite the election results."
Response: Scott says he became aware of the issue after Robert McCullough toured the elections facility and wrote a report on security.
"They wrote a report but failed to send me a copy," he said. Scott meets regularly with the Republican voter integrity committee, chaired by Andrew Nisbet III, to discuss improvements to the system, he says. The computers are monitored by eight security cameras in a room that only a few people are allowed to enter.
"We installed tamper resistant seals on the USB ports," he says. "We didn't completely put in place all the recommendations for the central tally computer, but we reached an agreement that meets the spirit."
Nisbet disputes that the arrangement is satisfactory. The seals are removed on election day, he told The Skanner News in an email.
"Under Tim Scott there have been many improvements to transparency in the operations of MCE and he deserves everyone's and has my appreciation for these efforts, but actions on electronic security have been completely symbolic (the 'tamper resistant seals on the USB ports'are removed on the day of the election) and there is not 'an agreement that meets the spirit.' of our recommendations."
Still, despite those facts, the U-Choose group alleges that Oregon's elections are open to "massive voter fraud." So what's the truth behind the group's claims?
It's true that you can register to vote in Oregon without any ID at all. And you can vote in state elections. Oregon verifies votes by matching signatures on ballots with signatures on registration cards.
But you can't vote in federal elections without providing ID. The federal Help America Vote Act requires ID to register.
Across the state about 9,000 of Oregon's 2 million voters registered without ID. Most of them, 80 percent, didn't vote in 2010. That's compared to a rate of 70 percent for other Oregon voters.
"It's a small number of people," Scott says. "And we send them at least two letters. Often those letters are returned as undeliverable and then we deactivate their registration."
To vote in federal elections, you must offer ID, although it doesn't have to be photo ID. A utility bill or pay stub will do.
According to U-Choose, "Oregon's practices are so lax that, according the Washington County District Attorney, tens of thousands of aliens from all over the world were acquiring Oregon ID and Oregon Drivers Licenses….Nor do we know if terrorists attempting to enter the United States exploited the Oregon loopholes."
Jeff Lesowski, a senior Deputy District Attorney in the Washington County District Attorney's Office, says the group must be referring to a criminal case from 2005-06.
Three brothers, Miguel, Sergio, and Fabio Robleto, and several other people, "were charged with racketeering and other crimes stemming from businesses they ran, which exploited a weakness in the procedure with which a person could get an Oregon Driver's License or ID card," Lesowski says. "Back then, DMV would accept a piece of cancelled mail as proof of Oregon residence."
The men brought thousands of people to Beaverton and Hillsboro, from all over the United States, to get drivers licenses. "For a fee, they would be provided with personalized piece of cancelled mail, and then ushered through the DMV application process, ultimately obtaining a "valid" photo ID," Lesowski says.
Most were undocumented immigrants, Lesowski says. But the point of the scam was to get photo ID not to vote. He says the scam is no longer possible under the current rules.
Buehler says that if he's elected Oregon Secretary of State in November, he will audit the elections process to see if problems exist. But others argue that there is little point wasting money on a nonexistent problem.
"The League of Women Voters wishes that the country would put more energy into efforts to encourage voter turnout rather than voter ID laws," says League spokesperson, Betsy Pratt.
"People who have studied voter issues across the country have found very little evidence of voter fraud. Our democracy would be better off if people felt enthusiastic about voting, rather than disempowered."
CORRECTION: This article originally wrongly described Robert McCullough. He is a Managing Partner with the firm, McCullough Research and does not chair any political committee. Andrew Nisbet III, an analyst with McCullough Research, is the chair of the Republican voter integrity committee.