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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

“This ain’t your father’s SmAlbany vote fraud…”

This ain’t your father’s SmAlbany vote fraud:

UPDATE (8/12/2005):This week's Metroland has an article by Miriam Axel-Lute that references this article and the general debate that took place here and at Democracy in Albany.

UPDATE (7/31/2005): Mike over at Democracy at Albany has posted a response critique to this piece. I think he makes some good points, it's definitely worth a read after you read my essay below.

However, I still stand by the main point of my essay: I'm all for clean elections, but it is counterproductive in democratic politics to make trivial election law violations the central topic of campaigns at the expense of substantive discussions of candidate policy positions. Clean elections are only a means to an end- when they come to be the only end, it benefits nobody.

ORIGINAL ESSAY (7/29/2005)

Over at Democracy in Albany, there’s a lot of talk in the past day or two about “vote fraud” and “voter fraud” in recent Albany elections – some of the county legislative elections of 2004 were invalidated by a federal court and in the current Democratic primary for the city common council there is talk of illegal tactics for gathering petition signatures. As the TU reports:

The Albany Housing Authority, which settled a federal lawsuit over last year's absentee ballot scandal by promising to protect residents from electioneering by authority workers, has been accused of violating that agreement in two Democratic primary campaigns for Common Council.

Objections filed with the Albany County Board of Elections this week on nominating petitions allege that housing authority officials, including Victor Cain, chairman of the board, broke the pledge to restrict workers from campaigning in housing authority residences.

The objections were filed by Linda Ware on behalf of 2nd Ward Council member Carolyn McLaughlin, who is being challenged by Cain, and by Vera Michelson on behalf of Barbara Smith, who is running against Cheryl Mackey for the 4th Ward seat being vacated by Sarah Curry-Cobb. Curry-Cobb is running for council president. Nominating petitions signed by enrolled party members are required for candidates to be placed on a primary ballot. Challenges to the validity of these petitions is a common political tactic.

Ware claimed that Cain collected petition signatures from 20 housing authority residents at the Ezra Prentiss Homes and Steamboat Square, violating a Feb. 3 court order by U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue.

Over at Democracy in Albany, there is a minor uproar over this “voter fraud,” on both its substance and the lack of coverage by the TU. Here are my three initial reactions:

Reaction #1: Whatever has been done that is illegal, it’s not “vote fraud” or “voter fraud” – In the last generation or two in America, there has been a strong move toward protecting the rights of the voter. This is generally a positive development (although I have some reservations; see below). But it has been accompanied by a rhetorical shift of pundits and politicians that has turned every bit of minor election law vioation into “voter fraud.” "Minor election law violations" are the violation of campaign laws, whether trivial or important. If you don’t report your legal spending in a federal election, that’s a violation. If you campaign within 150 feet of a polling place in New York, that’s a violation. “Vote fraud,” as commonly understood, is a very serious subset of election law violations – it covers the practice of illegal receiving votes in an election, either because people voted illegally or because the votes were intentionally counted incorrectly. But in the past 10 years or so, particularly since the 2000 election, “vote fraud” has come to mean anything and everything that is electioneering, as well as some things that are not even illegal. It is not “vote fraud” if you don’t receive your absentee ballot in the mail on time. It might be a minor bit of chicanery, but it’s probably more likely just a mistake.

Small potatoes election law violations (to say nothing of innocent mistakes), although undesirable, happens every election. People cut corners and try to take advantage of vague rules and unenforced laws. Although it can alter elections, the vast majority of violations are so indirectly related to the actual vote that the probability of it having any effect is near zero. This nonsense about petition signatures in the Democratic primary this week is a good example. It’s wrong, but it’s also trivial. It is not going to change the election. Vote fraud, however, is very serious. It directly undermines the validity of the election. This is not to say that there isn't serious electioneering besides vote fraud; there is: Watergate for instance. You shouldn't be raiding the other party's headquarters.

The point here is that we shouldn’t start calling all election law violations “vote fraud.” It just isn’t. It can only serve to unnecessarily alarm the public and put cracks in citizen confidence. In political science- and everywhere else – it is well known that the packaging of an idea has a lot to do with its success. That’s why people use the “death tax” terminology for the estate tax, the “pro-choice” and “right to choose” euphamisms for abortion, and the always funnyuse of “budget cuts” for the reduction in the rate of increase of spending. There are good and bad ideas, but there are also good and bad sales pitches for ideas. Whatever the merit of your idea, you better bring a good sales pitch. Anytime you can stuff your idea into a tried and true rhetorical phrase – like “tax cuts” or “right to X” – you’re halfway to a political winner. The same is true for the selling of accusations of wrongdoing. If you just package all electioneering as “vote fraud,” it makes it sound like a really big deal. Similarly, if you start to treat every wrong action in an election as “voter fraud” – in the “you broke the law so you are frauding the electorate” – then, well, all government corruption becomes “voter fraud.”

Stuffing ballot boxes: vote fraud. Dead people voting: vote fraud. Racially skewed literacy tests to vote: serious electioneering that can reasonably be called vote fraud. Twenty fake or illegally obtained petition signatures: small-time election law violation, not vote fraud.

Reaction #2: Those devious Albany politicos just aren’t what they used to be! – Come on, admit it, this was actually your first reaction. Mine too. Anyone who has lived their whole life in SmAlbany probably had the same reaction as me: that’s it? Just a handful of illegally obtained petition signatures? Where are the dead voters, the old ladies who voted morning, noon, and night, the fictional voters who never existed? Where is the intimidation, the bribes, the dusty ward maps with each house’s voting record printed on them? Back in the day, vote fraud in Albany meant just that – stealing votes – and voter fraud meant fraudulent voters – i.e. people voting who either didn’t exist, didn’t have a pulse, or otherwise didn’t qualify to vote, like my Labrador retriever Sasha. [shouldn’t she sue for her right to vote – i.e. vote fraud? –ed. Probably, but she prefers her status as queen.]

In fact, if SmAlbany politics is known for anything in the rest of the country, it’s known for the O’Connell machine, and with it the glamorization of the sketchy side of machine politics, including – but certainly not limited to – vote fraud. Historically, Albany politics is so synonymous with real “vote fraud” that one begins to wonder if the legend actually outweighs the truth. Who hasn’t heard about “making the machine dance?” And we’re not just talking about 50 years ago. In his great book about running for the Assembly in 2000, Running with the Machine, Dan Lynch basically accuses the Republican party in southern Saratoga county of stuffing the ballot box:

There had been some chicanery in Saratoga county. Voting machines had broken down in Stillwater and in certain sections of Clifton Park – a sure sign of vote fraud with paper ballots being used to pad the outcome.

That’s vote fraud. And it’s the only paragraph in Lynch’s book that mentions vote fraud. However, if you read the book cover to cover you’ll find hundreds of accusations of minor election law violations and legal-but-unethical election practices, like ripping someone else’s campaign signs down from public places.

Reaction #3: Is this really the angle that anyone who cares about Albany should be spending their time talking about?

In political science, there is generally agreement that one of the forces that shapes the democratic world is incomplete information. If everyone had all the facts about everything, both democracy and capitalism would look a lot different – there would be no advertising, there would be no campaigning, and people would generally make the decisions, both economic and political, that were – from their perspective – best for themselves. But of course, people don’t have all the information. So the theoretical purpose of advertising, or of a campaign, is to give them that information.

However, neither corporations or politicians are interested in necessarily supplying you with all the information. They just want you to buy their stuff or vote for them. So they try to give you partial information, just the good stuff about them and the bad stuff about their competitors. There is a limited amount of time before a campaign and a limited attention span of the voters. Whatever information is translated to them becomes the information with which the voting decisions are made. This is why we have certain cues in elections, like party labels. Knowing the political party of a candidate gives the average vote the vast majority of information that he/she needs to make a voting decision that he/she is comfortable with.

Most people who are progressive about democracy (whether liberal or conservative) are in agreement that a better-informed electorate would be beneficial toward the ends of a better democracy. I tend to agree. Obviously, you are fighting an uphill battle when you take this position: people are lazy, don’t care much about local politics, and generally don’t even want to be informed about elections beyond the party labels and any major candidate scandal. But you are also fighting a second battle: not only is there limited time for the delivery of information, but the crucial information is often drowned out by unimportant information. Often this is done on purpose by the candidates: if you just starting accusing each other of illegal practices, you don’t have time to talk about the issues! It is a classic campaign that spends all its time arguing over who violated some tiny voter regulation and spends no time talking about any substantive issue. Clean elections can only be a means to an end. If they become the only end in themselves, we have gotten exactly nowhere.

This is clearly the pattern of worrying about small time election law violations. Democracy in Albany in upset that the Times Union doesn’t cover election law violations enough during the election? I think it’s a good thing. It saves space in the paper to talk about the actual election issues, as poorly as the TU does that. Seriously, what is more important in an election – finding out who broke what miniscule law or finding out where the candidates stand on the important issues? I take the latter every time. There are so many violations of small election laws that it ultimately can’t be a judge of character anyway. And half the time, the violation isn’t by the candidate at all, it’s by a party or another politician not in the race. There’s an old saying in politics, “If you spend all your time arguing about who is lying, you probably don’t care a whole lot about the truth.” It implies that partisan extremists just want to win at all costs, and thus devolve elections into battles over silly rhetorical mistakes and small-time electioneering. And it has a lot of merit.

Like I said at the outset of this piece, I’m all for clean elections. But I think it’s silly to demand perfect elections if the cost is to turn the entire campaign into a discussion of fraud. It doesn’t really do the voter any good. Across the vast majority of the democratic world, and through the vast majority of American democratic history, small-time election law violation is and has been a problem. So has vote fraud. We’ve done our best in modern America to stamp out real vote fraud, and that has been a major advancement of our society. But to continue to treat the end of minor and generally inconsequentional electioneering as the most important step towards an improved democracy is just silly. We would be far better off spending the time and money informing voters of candidate policy positions.

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At 12:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Call it what you will, but there was sufficient vote tampering and chicanery that the results of a county legislative election were voided last year and a re-vote was ordered.

Given a choice of electioneering or fraud, I vote for the latter. No one takes the 5th dozens of times when they're guilty only of spirited campaigning.    

At 8:49 PM , Anonymous Tom said:

I love reading how the government in Malaysia does its own vote fraud. Take factory workers from one constituency, bus them to another, magically make their names appear on the voter registration, and let them vote. They call them ghost voters (pengundi hantu). I think that counts as vote fraud.

How about this, though? You take a party worker and force them to live in the house of a family where their votes are uncertain. You give the party worker a couple bucks for his/her trouble, and you give the family a couple more bucks for being so hospitable. During this time, the party worker keeps all opposition party canvassers away from the uncertain voters, and then accompanies them to the polls. Electioneering or vote fraud? My gut says electioneering, and my brain says dictatorship.    

At 1:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

You're missing the point by focusing on the nominating petitions. That's not where the real fraud is being alleged in the DIA discussions. The problem was the diversion of absentee ballots -- actual votes that were tampered with in a primary election. A judge found that the tampering was grounds for throwing out the election results and having a new vote. How does that rank as "silly" in your mind?    

At 2:48 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Our elections aren't perfect - every time we have a vote, there are thousands and thousands of cases of actual voter fraud - people who don't meet the residency requirement and people barred from voting due to felon status vote all the time. We could spend hundreds of millions of dollars and all our time and energy to combat this. It might be worth it. It's actual voter fraud.

Also, in every single campaign and every single election, there are literally hundreds of violations of election law. The most serious of these - acts that are otherwise criminal (watergate) or acts that could seriously affect the outcome of the election (destroying ballots, etc.) we should be vigorous about. But the other stuff - stealing lawn signs, not reporting every last cent of spending in a federal election, or the illegal obtainment of 20 petition signatures - seems largely a waste of time to me. Especially when it comes at the cost of public debate about candidate positions.

If you want perfect elections, you can have them. You just have to burn down the village to save it.    

At 5:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Twenty petition here, twenty petitions there ... pretty soon we're talking real fraud.

The Willingham-Williams race last year was decided by less than 10 votes. There were more than 100 absentee ballots in dispute because of the actions of Michael Brown and Jamie Gilkey. That was nearly one-quarter of all votes cast. A judge thought it was serious enough to throw out the results and order a new election.

We're not talking stolen lawn signs or hypothetically faulty signatures on a petition. We're talking about a real effort to steal a real election. A waste of time in your view?    

At 5:59 PM , Blogger Matt said:

Once again, i'm not talking about fraudulent absentee ballots. Those are clearly vote fraud cases and need to be dealt with severely. No question.

What I am concerned with is lumping primary election petition signatures in the same category. Do you really think that the illegal procurement of petition signatures used to get a candidate on the primary ballot are equivalent to fake voters in the actual election? That was the crux of my column. If you didn't get that from it, read it again.

Petition challenges are political tactics used by parties to SUPPRESS democracy. Do you really want to make the case that they are the same as vote fraud in general elections?    

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