Why am I so interested in voter fraud allegations? Perhaps because the first time I looked into voter fraud allegations, they turned out to be real — ballots had been forged and an election was stolen.
Back in 1993, in Philadelphia (my home town), Democrat Bill Stinson appeared to eke out a victory over Republican Bruce Marks, largely due to a surge in absentee ballots. Although Marks won the votes cast on election day, Stinson won the district's 1,700 absentee votes by 1,000 votes. This gave Stinson a 459-vote margin of victory over Republican Bruce Marks. Stinson's "victory" kept the state legislature from falling into GOP hands — until it was discovered that Stinson had literally stolen the election.
As it turned out, Stinson campaign workers conducted an organized campaign to submit fraudulent or coerced absentee ballots. In some cases, the ballot applications and ballots were forged. In others, campaign workers filled out absentee ballots and duped voters to sign. Some voters turned up at the polls only to find that someone had already cast a ballot in their name. Dead people voted and non-English speakers were hoodwinked, and an election was stolen.
The first indication of something fishy in the Stinson-Marks election was a sudden and unprecedented surge in absentee ballot applications. There were 1757 absentee ballots cast in 1993, whereas in prior years the district barely exceeded 1,000. The Marks campaign sought to challenge many of the ballots, but without much success, in part because some ballots were opened before the polls closed (contrary to the election rules at the time).
Investigations continued after election day. The key investigative work was conducted by Philadelphia newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer in particular. I became so engaged in the allegations that I wrote an op-ed on the case ("How to steal an election in Philadelphia," Wash. Times, Dec. 3, 1993). A federal investigation followed, and Stinson's victory was thrown out a few months later.
Is the Stinson-Marks case an aberration? Ancient history? I certainly hope so, but it is difficult to know for sure. The temptation to manipulate elections is real, and there are activists on both sides of the aisle that would steal an election if they thought they could get away with it, and local election administration often leaves much to be desired.
Most charges of voter fraud (like most charges of voter suppression) are overstated if not simply false. There's much more smoke than fire, but the few actual cases found are still quite serious. Just because party activists and others cry wolf with impunity, does not mean we live in a wolf-free world. To the contrary, because of the Stinson-Marks case, I believe there are some real wolves out there, and that it's worth paying attention to election irregularities just in case.