Charges of potential vote fraud volleyed by Republicans, including Sen. John McCain himself, are out of proportion to reality, according to election experts.
The concerns – raised by the Republican National Committee in daily conference calls with reporters, as well as by McCain himself in Wednesday's debate – focus on the nonprofit group Acorn, whose nationwide voter registration efforts have garnered apparently fraudulent registration cards, some for fictional characters like "Mickey Mouse."
Acorn, whose registration efforts generally target poor neighborhoods, "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy," McCain claimed last night, citing Sen. Barack Obama's ties to the group.
Obama reportedly worked with Acorn when he ran a Chicago-area voter registration drive shortly after graduating from law school, and conducted leadership training with the group. During the primaries, Obama's campaign paid an Acorn-affiliated group $800,000 for get-out-the-vote efforts, which reportedly did not include voter registration. The group's political arm has endorsed Obama's candidacy.
But McCain's voter fraud worries – about Acorn or anyone else – are unsupported by the facts, said experts on election fraud, who recall similar concerns being raised in several previous elections, despite a near-total absence of cases.
"There's no evidence that any of these invalid registrations lead to any invalid votes," said David Becker, project director of the "Make Voting Work" initiative for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Becker should know: he was a lawyer for the Bush administration until 2005, in the Justice Department's voting rights section, which was part of the administration's aggressive anti-vote-fraud effort.
"The Justice Department really made prosecution of voter fraud of this sort a big priority in the first half of this decade, and they really didn't come up with anything," he said.
"We're chasing these ghosts of voter fraud, like chickens without a head," said Lorraine Minnite, a political science professor at Barnard College in New York who has researched voter fraud and fraud claims for most of the past decade. "I think it's completely overblown, I think it's meant to be a distraction."
"This stuff does not threaten the outcome of the election," said Minnite. "How many illegal ballots have been cast by people who are fraudulently registered to vote? By my count, it's zero. I just don't know of any, I've been looking for years for this stuff."
For all types of vote tampering and fraud, including vote buying, Minnite says the Justice Department has averaged seven or eight convictions a year.
Despite the experts' opinions, a McCain-Palin campaign spokesman reiterated that their concern was real. In cases like absentee voting, "there's no way of knowing whether [voters] are who they say they are," said the spokesman, who declined to be identified.
So far, one case of alleged vote fraud has been reported in this election: On Sept. 30, an Ohio man reportedly attempted to vote using the state's early-voting process, who registered under a fake address, according to the New York Post. However, the state's bipartisan election board was downplaying concerns over such fraud, according to the paper.
Acorn has defended its efforts by pointing out that it has reported "almost all" of the bogus cards itself, and noting that McCain had supported the group's efforts in other areas in the past. "Repeating a lie doesn't make it true," read a statement the group released last night in response to McCain's attack, "and the McCain campaign has resorted to the worst type of deceptions in regards to Acorn."
And while the RNC has labeled Acorn a "quasi-criminal group," not all Republicans share their party's concern. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, whom McCain once reportedly considered as a running mate, told a reporter recently that he wasn't worried by Acorn's registration efforts in his state.
Even the non-partisan truth-in-politics Web site FactCheck.org called foul on McCain's alleged possible conspiracy, noting that a Republican prosecutor handling a key Acorn registration fraud case has said there's no evidence indicating the group was involved in vote fraud.
"This scheme was not intended to permit illegal voting," said King County, Wash. Prosecutor Dan Satterberg in a 2007 statement, after a federal-state investigation found seven Acorn workers had submitted over 1,700 bogus voter registration forms.