Is "online ballot fraud" the problem?

This notable story in the Miami Herald leads with this:

Over just a few days last July, at least two groups of schemers used computers traced to Miami, India and the United Kingdom to fraudulently request the ballots of 2,046 Miami-Dade voters.

So what's the problem? Is the problem the fact that it's online? Portions of the article suggest so (e.g., "This is the e-boletera era of Miami politics.").

But I think the more salient issue is noted later in the piece:

Campaigns highly prize absentee ballots and target their voters. It’s a good way to bank votes early in a state where the mail-in voting period starts weeks before Election Day.
But because absentee ballots are cast out of the eye of election officials, the mail-in style of voting is the most fraud-prone — and the most likely to be at the center of electoral whodunits.

This is the biggest problem when we discuss "voter fraud." It's less the fact that one may request the absentee ballots online; it's the entire absentee balloting system itself.

It's worth considering that most of the debate over voter fraud focuses on voter identification laws, which, in turn, are designed to deter in-person voter fraud--which is, by all accounts, fairly rare (even if difficult to detect).

But while Republican politicians tend to support laws to combat voter fraud, they are less inclined to clamp down on absentee ballots. That's because it puts a number of constituencies at risk for them, constituencies who rely heavily on absentee ballots (namely, military personnel and the elderly).

Florida is ferreting out overseas absentee ballot requests as best it can by checking Internet Protocol addresses, but it's only a matter of time before more sophisticated requests will spoof IPs. Instead, it'll take a more comprehensive look at absentee balloting, and the online aspect is only a small piece of it.

The data about voter identification

There are two major data-driven arguments when it comes to voter identification. The first is from supporters: voter identification laws are needed to prevent (widespread) fraud, and requiring individuals who show up for in-person voting at the polls to present identification, photo or otherwise, will prevent that fraud. The second is from opponents: voter identification laws tend to disenfranchise (many) voters who lack voter identification, which disproportionately affects low-income and minority voters.

The problem is that neither side has much data; hence, (widespread) and (many). 

Is voter fraud a problem? In particular, is the kind of voter fraud that voter identification laws prevent a problem, much less "widespread"?  There isn't much data to support that. There are few criminal indictments or reports of such fraud (but other forms of fraud do exist and are more prevalent). Supporters say it's a "perfect crime"--it's hard to detect or catch anyone who shows up claiming to be someone else, and, even if it's discovered, there's no way to find the culprit. But, lacking data, it's hard to say.

Do voter identification laws suppress turnout or disproportionately affect minority or low-income groups? Early studies in states like Georgia and Indiana suggest, perhaps not.

That's an important fact in Pennsylvania at the moment. After some extensive litigation that delayed implementation of the commonwealth's new voter identification law in the 2012 election, the judge in the case is asking for the data.  One would think the parties would have had this information available, rather than relying on speculation and conjecture. Now, the court seeks it, and we'll see the lawyers' best efforts to address this issue head-on.

Whatever the merits of a voter identification law are in the first place--and whether it's even necessary to prevent any fraud--it's hard for opponents to point to a harm to voters without this data. (Admittedly, one could argue that the onus should be on the state to establish why even a nominal burden is required before a voter votes, but that's an issue I'll save for another day.) And as the lead Pennsylvania plaintiff in last year's litigation obtained identification shortly after the conclusion of the case, the practical barriers may be harder for the plaintiffs to establish than originally thought.

Pew survey of state election websites

I blogged earlier about the disconnect between what voters want from an election website and what states actually provide. A survey and accompanying series of infographics from Pew look at five things voters may want to access online: polling place lookup tool, registration status, absentee ballot status, provisional ballot status, and sample ballot.

To me, the most surprising fact is that just 25 states make a sample ballot online. In an age when long lines at the polling place are deemed a symptom of some larger problem, one would hope that simple things to speed up voters--like, perhaps, informing them well in advance about what will actually be on the ballot before they arrive at the polling place--would be at the forefront of solutions.

Indeed, Miami-Dade County in Florida had an extremely long ballot in the 2012 presidential election, including 12 constitutional amendments and 10 county questions, many of which had lengthy descriptions. The County moved to limit the number of items that could appear on the ballot; the state of Florida moved to limit the length of descriptions.

And while Florida does offer a sample ballot lookup tool, one solution for many states is to make this information available to voters as far in advance of the election as possible, especially in an easy-to-find online election database.

The basics of technology and voting

In an age when the debate about technology and elections looks at things like texting campaign contributions, or Internet voting, or online voter registration, it's perhaps worth thinking that for many localities, the debate is at a far more basic level. A fascinating study examines county websites and finds them sorely lacking in terms of what voters want.

The most shocking statistic (to me) is that almost one-third of counties lacked an elections website. And as elections are administered mostly at the local level, it's important to consider that, for all the abstract technological ideas we have for the future, there are still pretty basic technological hurdles that local jurisdictions need to overcome in the years ahead.