By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post
Posted: Saturday, Oct. 06, 2012

The cost might be a little cash, some whiskey or perhaps a chicken dinner

The price of one bona fide, registered American vote varies from place to place. But it is rarely more than a tank of gas.

Indeed, as a rising furor over voter fraud has prodded some states to mount extensive efforts against illegal voters, election fraud cases more often involve citizens who sell their votes, usually remarkably cheaply. In West Virginia in the past decade, the cost was as low as $10. Last year in West Memphis, Ark., a statehouse candidate used $2 half-pints of vodka.

At the high end, corrupt candidates in Clay County, Ky., once paid $100. It attracted one woman who already had sold her vote. The man who bought it first was outraged, and beat up the man who bought it second.

It may still be possible to steal an American election, if you know the right way to go about it. Recent court cases, from Appalachia to the Miami suburbs, have revealed the tricks of an underground trade: Conspirators allegedly bought off absentee voters, faked absentee ballots and bribed people heading to the polls to vote one way or another.

What they didn’t do, for the most part, was send people into voting booths pretending to be somebody else. That little-used tactic has been targeted by new voter ID laws. In real life, recent fraudsters tended not to bother with impersonating voters at the polls. Instead, they often found real voters to do their bidding.

“I was in town one day at a local convenience store, and someone asked me if I wanted to make a little money on that day,’ ” Charles Russell of Jackson, Ky., testified about how he agreed to sell his vote in a local primary election in 2010. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Russell was eventually promised $45 and given a slip of paper with names.

Voter fraud, by any method, is still rare. A study by News21 – a consortium of journalism schools – found 867 cases since 2000 in which someone had admitted guilt or been convicted of a voter-fraud offense. That was out of about 146 million registered voters.

Just seven of these cases involved “voter impersonation” at the polls. Still, nine states have passed strict laws that require photo identification to vote. Four of the measures are stalled by legal challenges, including the one in Pennsylvania. A judge there Tuesday delayed the state’s voter-ID requirement from taking effect this election; he wasn’t sure the state had made it possible for voters to easily get IDs before Nov. 6.

Supporters say these laws are a good idea, even if they might not have stopped much recent large-scale fraud. “If we can bring an additional layer of reasonable security measures that most people want, then why wouldn’t we do it?” said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of a Houston-based group called True the Vote.

In the past three years, six legal cases have laid out, step by step, how elections can be stolen. All were local races, for positions such as magistrate, county clerk, mayor and state representative. Four took place in a traditional heartland of American vote-buying: Appalachia.

“The first votes I ever bought, I paid a half a pint or a pint of liquor. … And then as time went on, $5 a vote, $10 a vote. I have paid as high as $800 a vote,” said Kenneth Day, a methamphetamine user and convicted criminal who was involved in a long-running vote-buying operation in eastern Kentucky. Wearing prison orange, he was testifying in a 2010 trial that sent eight others to prison.

“Every election I ever worked, it went on,” Day told the court. The $800 payment came, he said, when two factions engaged in an impromptu auction for one man’s vote.

In the majority of these six recent cases, the fraud relied on absentee ballots, which can be filled out away from the prying eyes of election officials. The News21 database found 250 cases in which someone was convicted or admitted guilt in a case involving absentee ballots.

In West Memphis last year, prosecutors said Hudson Hallum, a Democrat running for the state legislature, paid absentee voters with cash, whiskey and vodka and at least one with a chicken dinner. Hallum won his primary by eight votes, after taking 85 percent of the absentee ballots, and went on to win the general election.

But it looked fishy, and it didn’t last. Hallum pleaded guilty, and resigned his new seat in the state legislature last month. “While I ran for office for all the right reasons,” Hallum, 29, said in a statement, “in order to win the election, I made awful decisions.”

Absentee ballots are not the only way to fraudulently win an election. In Clay County, Ky., the vast fraud operation used poll workers, who told voters to leave their booths after one pass through the ballot. What the voters didn’t know is that there was a “review screen” that would allow them to change their choices. The poll workers scurried in and did that.

Other fraudsters have used one of the oldest tricks in the book: bribing voters on their way to the polls.

Vote sales often drive election fraud cases |