Maybe Joe Moschella thought he was playing it safe. The 59-year-old retired transit employee had mailed his absentee ballot too late, he thought, so on Election Day 2000, he trotted down to the polls and voted in person. The only problem was that his polling place is in Staten Island, where he lives, while the absentee ballot went to Florida, where he winters.
This August, Moschella's name came up in a sweep of voter registration records by the New York Daily News, which found that he and 46,000 other New Yorkers were registered to vote in both Florida and New York. Moschella also had the bad luck to answer the phone when the News reporter, Russ Buettner, called. So, his name appeared in the paper's Aug. 21 story revealing that in the 2000 election between 400 and 1,000 of these double-registrants voted in both states.
Other investigations revealed similar results elsewhere. The Orlando Sentinel found that 68,000 Florida voters are also registered in Georgia or North Carolina (the only two states it checked), 1,650 of whom voted twice in 2000 or 2002. The Kansas City Star discovered 300 "potential" cases of individual voter fraud, including Kansans voting in Missouri and St. Louisans voting in both the city and the surrounding suburbs. "I probably shouldn't have voted in Kansas," a Kansas City businesswoman named Lorraine Goodrich told the paper, owning up to the offense. "That was a mistake. Whoops! Oh my God, I'm going to get in so much trouble, aren't I?"
Like, so much trouble. Intentionally voting more than once in a federal election is a third-degree felony in most states and probably also violates federal election-fraud laws. The punishment varies from state to state but is usually up to five or 10 years in jail and fine of up to $5,000 or $10,000.
Even so, in a country where presidential election turnout hovers around 50 percent, voting twice has generally been one of those "why bother?" crimes that are rarely prosecuted. A couple of years ago, the Republican National Committee compiled a list of 3,273 Democrats who had supposedly voted twice. Most states disregarded the data.
Few people get convicted of the offense, and their stories tend to be pretty entertaining. Adell Hardiman, a 51-year-old Missouri plumbing contractor, was convicted of voting in both Kansas City and nearby Blue Springs, where he owns a home. He registered openly in both places, using the same name and Social Security number. He got a suspended jail sentence. "If it was wrong to vote twice, why didn't they tell me that?" he asked the Star, pricelessly.
In another case uncovered by the Star, insurance investigator Glenn R. Jourdon was found to have signed poll books in two counties in the 2002 elections. "I'd almost say I don't know how I possibly could have done it," said Jourdon, in a fairly typical excuse offered. "But there's no telling."
After the Florida debacle of 2000, however, the good old days of getting away with voting twice (or even joking about it at dinner parties, as the film director John Waters has done) have ended. This year's double-voting investigations are already under way. In Galveston, Texas, the local district attorney is looking into six people who cast ballots twice in early voting. Right-wing bloggers, especially the bilious freerepublic.org, have been on fire since the Daily News story, since 68 percent of the News' double-registrants were Democrats, and Florida and New York officials—embarrassed by the newspapers' revelations—have been playing catch-up.
After the Daily News story appeared, Florida's Secretary of State Glenda Hood fired off a letter to the FBI, saying Moschella's case "warrants immediate attention on the part of federal officials." The state attorney for Brevard County is also investigating him. "We believe that immediate and decisive action on the federal level is necessary to send a strong message that this type of illegal behavior and manipulation of the electoral franchise will not be tolerated," Hood wrote. "I did not do anything wrong," Moschella insists. (No charges have yet been filed, according to a spokeswoman for Brevard County state attorney Norman Wolfinger.)
It's pretty easy to be registered in two places, even if you don't own a second home like Adell Hardiman or filmmaker Michael Moore, who's registered in both New York and his native Michigan, where he has a lakefront house, according to the Smoking Gun. When you move and change registration, in most states, you're supposed to give the address or county where you were previously registered. That notification, in turn, is supposed to trigger a cancellation of your former registration. But not every state bothers to report the new registration.
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.
"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.