[Image via SAGU]
Regular readers of this blog know that voter fraud is a constant topic of discussion in the field of elections, with fierce battles in legislatures and in the courts over the wisdom and impact of laws intended to combat ineligible voters from casting ballots at the polls. But a recent story out of North Carolina is a helpful reminder (to me at least) that many stories of “fraud” are actually just sad stories of people who either thought they were doing the right thing or didn’t realize they weren’t.
The story I’m talking about involves a 67-year old woman who cast her mother’s ballot for President shortly after she died suddenly. WBTV has more:
A North Carolina woman says she voted in her mother’s place in the November 2016 presidential election to honor her last request.
According to the NC District Attorney’s Office, the 67-year-old woman said her 89-year-old mother had intended to vote by absentee ballot, but had not yet done so when she unexpectedly died of a stroke on October 26.
“The lady erroneously believed that she could cast her mother’s vote and did so on Nov. 3, 2016, at an early voting location, totally lacking any fraudulent intent and not realizing that it was unlawful due to the Power of Attorney,” the District Attorney wrote in a press release Wednesday. “This vote was cast eight days after her mother’s death and only four days after her funeral…”
The press release states when contacted by a North Carolina State Board of Elections investigator, the woman was “totally honest and cooperative.” She sent an email to the board explaining the vote.
Apparently, the email explained that woman’s mother was a committed supporter of GOP candidate Donald Trump, and urged her daughter to make sure she cast her vote for him:
My mother [name redacted] at 89 was a tremendous Donald Trump fan. She donated to his campaign, watched all his debates and news involving his campaign on Fox news. She was so excited about voting for him and at every opportunity told everyone else to vote for him to save our country… I had printed out a State Absentee Ballot Request Form on Saturday, October 22, 2016 and told her to fill it out and mail it in so that she could vote in the event she was unable to go and cast her vote. She said, ‘ok and if anything happens you have my power of attorney and you be sure to vote for Donald Trump for me.” The following day she had a massive stroke and passed away on October 26, 2016…
On November 3rd I took a copy of the power of attorney, which no one asked for, and honored her request and voted on her behalf. It was the last thing I could do for her and I felt excited to do that for her.
My mother was alive during the absentee period and if she had received the ballot in time she would have been able to vote. Please understand that my actions were in no way intended to be fraudulent but were done during my grief and an effort to honor my mother’s last request and I knew that one vote from this 89-year-old lady would not affect the outcome of the election anyway.
The DA’s office declined to prosecute, saying the daughter “made a mistake out of sheer ignorance without any intent to defraud or commit a crime. She was grieving the loss of her mother and believed that the Power of Attorney allowed her to cast this vote.”
This decision has set off a round of commentary, including observations that the outcome might have different had the identities of the accused, deceased – and the candidate receiving the vote – been different. And those criticisms have some merit, given the harsh sentences other voters in different states have received for similar offenses, such as the woman in Texas who recently got an 8-year sentence for voting as a non-citizen.
But the important thing to remember, I think, is that most stories of “fraud” we know about are like this one: a well-meaning if not well-informed individual who has cast an ineligible ballot without sufficient knowledge of having done so or intent to break the law. In those situations, I don’t think we need the full prosecutorial weight of the community to come down on the voter and I certainly don’t think jailing voters makes the system better or safer; rather, we need to look and see if there’s anything we can do to help election officials and voters avoid the problem.
Let me be clear: I do believe some fraud exists, and it makes sense to look for ways to harden the system against it – especially organized efforts to game the system to advantage specific campaigns. But it also behooves us as the election community to remember that voting is an intensely human affair – subject to the full range of confusion and error that we bring to any endeavor – and proceed accordingly. Many election officials will do anything they can within the law to help a voter cast a ballot; we shouldn’t then throw the book at voters if and when they make a mistake. Our democracy isn’t made better or stronger by punishing individual voters for mistakes like this … and we should resist the temptation to use stories like this as an object lesson for larger election policy goals.