Electoral College Encourages Fraud

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published August 6th 2004 in Amherst Bulletin
The anticipation is killing me. What will be the trendy way to disenfranchise voters in 2008?

For this election season, electronic voting machines that leave no paper trails are all the rage. In California, secretary of state Kevin Shelly sees the flaw in these touch-screen devices' lack of palpable records, and has prohibited their use in several counties during the November election. He has good reason. Without a paper trail, straightening out erroneous tallies might prove impossible.

Yet, however much these problematic machines are banned, refurbished, or upgraded, the same threat will always remain. In fact, we can always look forward to more of it, because voting fraud is not something that threatens to happen once in a blue moon. Because of the nature of our electoral system, it is a perennial danger.

The Electoral College, the only college I have heard of that actually encourages cheating, operates on the "unit rule," which awards all electoral votes for a particular state to the candidate who won the post votes there. In fact, presidential candidates frequently carry entire states with less than majority support. Instead they can win by plurality alone, such as Bill Clinton's 1992 victory in Nevada with only 37 of Nevada voters marking their ballots for him. The unit rule has a better name: winner-take-all.

To no small degree, all the fuss about new, unproven voting devices this year hits a raw nerve because of the 2000 election, when the shortcomings of winner-take-all were starkly in focus. Accusations of fraud abound. One of the few states to bar ex-felons from voting, Florida dumped about 8,000 voters from the rolls. Some claim an additional 170,000 names were purged from Florida's list simply because they were similar to names of out-of-state felons. A high proportion of those voters purged were black.

To be fair, and for the purposes of this argument, accusations of fraud in the Sunshine state may remain unproven. We need only say that if fraud did occur that November, then a mere 537 fraudulent votes delivered the election. But imagine a country using a more sensible system. If the Electoral College, with its winner-take-all approach, were replaced by a simple popular vote, wannabee electioneers would have needed to manipulate a daunting 543,895 votes nationwide to deprive Gore of victory. Simply put, that would have been harder.

Such close races are hardly few and far between. On election night in 1976, claims of voting irregularities in New York sparked calls for a recount. Soon enough, however, the cause died as it became clear Jimmy Carter had a national lead over Ford to the tune of 1.7 million votes. Yet, if Carter had lost a mere 288,000 votes in New York, the state would have slid to Ford, along with the presidency. Whether fraud actually occurred in 1976 matters little. It is clear that 288,000 votes are far more easily distorted than 1.7 million.

John F. Kennedy won Illinois, one of the few states that handed him his exceedingly close victory in 1960, by less than 9,000 votes. Yet, as if to foreshadow the 2000 debacle, the election was not over when Americans went to bed that night. In some Cook County districts, Kennedy seemed to have gotten more votes than there were voters. Dead people also seemed to favor Kennedy over Nixon. In addition to accusations against Mayor Daley's Chicago political machine, allegations of fraud arose in Texas, another state Kennedy carried by a razor-thin margin, Regardless of the validity of the charges, the fact is clear: small, localized instances of foul play can swing a presidential election.

The winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College breeds fraud. To skew an outcome, would-be crooks often need not manipulate millions of votes, as they would have to under direct election. Rather, they need only cause enough mischief, in the right areas, to tip the scales. Even if all the shiny new touch-screen gizmos evolve from shady unknowns to trustworthy tools, even if smart people like California's Kevin Shelly force them to spit out paper trails, the specter of fraud will endure.

I just can't wait to see how it happens in 2008.

Ryan O'Donnell of Amherst is a marketing assistant at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center.


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