Cracking down on people who vote twice.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 28 2004 6:02 PM

People Who Vote Twice

A sudden crackdown on an old trick.

(Continued from Page 1)

This oversight occurs in part because the Constitution gives states, not the federal government, the responsibility for running elections—making accountability trickier. The Framers didn't envision an America where people moved from state to state so frequently. Nor did they foresee one where many people owned second homes. And they certainly didn't imagine voters who forum-shop, like the Washington-based journalist I know who's voting in New Hampshire, where he spent several months covering the campaign, or the New Yorkers who have registered in Florida via Operation Snowbird, which encourages Northerners who winter in Florida to vote in that all-important battleground state. (The Florida secretary of state reluctantly deemed such registrations legit, as long as the snowbirds didn't vote twice.)

Technology also makes double voting easier. Some 34 states still don't have statewide voter databases, as required by the Help America Vote Act, a Band-Aid passed by Congress in 2002. Nor is there any national voter database.

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"The fact that people are on the rolls in more than one place is not at all surprising," said Sam Issacharoff, a Columbia University law professor and election-law expert. Issacharoff remembers litigating voting-rights cases in Mississippi in the 1980s, in counties where he said the voter rolls outnumbered the state population by 25 percent. "They just never purged the rolls," he said.

These problems have been around for ages—part of our democracy's built-in tolerance—but they're setting off alarms now because Florida 2000 changed how we think about voting. Voting used to be a kind of existential exercise. You voted out of a sense of civic responsibility, or you stayed home because you felt your vote didn't matter. Either way, it rarely affected the outcome of an election.

This time around, the vote has been fetishized. Florida 2000 "proved" to voters, particularly in the swing states, that every ballot is vitally important.More than ever, you're reminded that if you register and vote, you could choose the next president. This message may subtly encourage cheating: Your extra vote, like Joe Moschella's in Florida, may help alter the course of history.

At the same time, the Florida fiasco also made it clear how imperfect the vote counting process is—like "measuring bacteria with a yardstick," in mathematician John Allen Paulos' phrase—and sends the signal that your vote probably won't matter after all. So, Democrats try to register every warm body, since new registrants tend to vote Democratic; for the same reason, Republicans are sorting through voter-registration forms one by one, looking for signs of fraud. Some people might justifiably worry that their precious vote won't be counted—and vote twice.

For all the new concern about double voting, though, the odds of getting caught remain minuscule. Comparing voter databases county by county and state by state is a needle-in-haystack undertaking, even with the aid of computers. Why not votetwice then? Michael Moore probably shouldn't do it. But you probably could.

Just don't tell any reporters.

Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.

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