The New York Times
April 11, 2007
By IAN URBINA
WASHINGTON, April 10 — A federal panel responsible for conducting election research played down the findings of experts who concluded last year that there was little voter fraud around the nation, according to a review of the original report obtained by The New York Times.
Instead, the panel, the Election Assistance Commission, issued a report that said the pervasiveness of fraud was open to debate.
The revised version echoes complaints made by Republican politicians, who have long suggested that voter fraud is widespread and justifies the voter identification laws that have been passed in at least two dozen states.
Democrats say the threat is overstated and have opposed voter identification laws, which they say disenfranchise the poor, members of minority groups and the elderly, who are less likely to have photo IDs and are more likely to be Democrats.
Though the original report said that among experts “there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud,” the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that “there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.”
The topic of voter fraud, usually defined as people misrepresenting themselves at the polls or improperly attempting to register voters, remains a lively division between the two parties. It has played a significant role in the current Congressional investigation into the Bush administration’s firing of eight United States attorneys, several of whom, documents now indicate, were dismissed for being insufficiently aggressive in pursuing voter fraud cases.
The report also addressed intimidation, which Democrats see as a more pervasive problem.
And two weeks ago, the panel faced criticism for refusing to release another report it commissioned concerning voter identification laws. That report, which was released after intense pressure from Congress, found that voter identification laws designed to fight fraud can reduce turnout, particularly among members of minorities. In releasing that report, which was conducted by a different set of scholars, the commission declined to endorse its findings, citing methodological concerns.
A number of election law experts, based on their own research, have concluded that the accusations regarding widespread fraud are unjustified. And in this case, one of the two experts hired to do the report was Job Serebrov, a Republican elections lawyer from Arkansas, who defended his research in an e-mail message obtained by The Times that was sent last October to Margaret Sims, a commission staff member.
“Tova and I worked hard to produce a correct, accurate and truthful report,” Mr. Serebrov wrote, referring to Tova Wang, a voting expert with liberal leanings from the Century Foundation and co-author of the report. “I could care less that the results are not what the more conservative members of my party wanted.”
He added: “Neither one of us was willing to conform results for political expediency.”
For contractual reasons, neither Ms. Wang nor Mr. Serebrov were at liberty to comment on their original report and the discrepancies with the final, edited version.
The original report on fraud cites “evidence of some continued outright intimidation and suppression” of voters by local officials, especially in some American Indian communities, while the final report says only that voter “intimidation is also a topic of some debate because there is little agreement concerning what constitutes actionable voter intimidation.”
The original report said most experts believe that “false registration forms have not resulted in polling place fraud,” but the final report cites “registration drives by nongovernmental groups as a source of fraud.”
Although Democrats accused the board of caving to political pressure, Donetta L. Davidson, the chairwoman of the commission, said that when the original report was submitted, the board’s legal and research staff decided there was not enough supporting data behind some of the claims. So, she said, the staff members revised the report and presented a final version in December for a vote by the commissioners.
“We were a small agency taking over a huge job,” said Ms. Davidson, who was appointed to the agency by President Bush in 2005. “I think we may have tried to do more research than we were equipped to handle.” She added that the commission had “always stuck to being bipartisan.”
The commission, which was created by Congress in 2002 to conduct nonpartisan research on elections, consists of two Republicans and two Democrats. At the time of the report, one of the two Democrats had left for personal reasons and had not yet been replaced, but the final report was unanimously approved by the other commissioners.
Gracia Hillman, the Democratic commissioner who voted in favor of releasing the final report, said she did not believe that the editing of the report was politically motivated or overly extensive.
“As a federal agency, our responsibility is to ensure that the research we produce is fully verified,” Ms. Hillman said. “Some of the points made in the draft report made by the consultants went beyond what we felt comfortable with.”
The Republican Party’s interest in rooting out voter fraud has been encouraged by the White House. In a speech last April, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s senior political adviser, told a group of Republican lawyers that election integrity issues were an “enormous and growing” problem.
“We’re, in some parts of the country, I’m afraid to say, beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses,” Mr. Rove said. “I mean, it’s a real problem.”
Several Democrats said they believed that politics were behind the commission’s decision to rewrite the report.
“This was the commission’s own study and it agreed in advance to how it would be done, but the most important part of it got dropped from the final version,” said Representative José E. Serrano, Democrat of New York and chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the commission. “I don’t see how you can conclude that politics were not involved.”
Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, another New York Democrat, who requested the draft report from Ms. Davidson during a subcommittee hearing last month, agreed.
“By attempting to sweep this draft report under the rug, the E.A.C. is throwing out important work, wasting taxpayer dollars and creating a cloud of suspicion as to why it is acting this way,” he said.
Some scholars and voting advocates said that the original report on fraud, for which the commission paid the authors more than $100,000, was less rigorous than it should have been. But they said they did not believe that was the reason for the changes.
“Had the researchers been able to go even further than they did, they would have come to same conclusions but they would have had more analysis backing them up,” said Lorraine C. Minnite, a political science professor at Barnard College who is writing a book on voter fraud. “Instead, the commission rewrote their report and changed the thrust of its conclusions.”
Ray Martinez III, the Democrat who left the commission for personal reasons, quit last August. He said in an interview that he was not present for any discussion or editing of the voter fraud report.
Mr. Martinez added, however, that he had argued strenuously that all reports, in draft or final editions, should be made public. But he said he lost that argument with other commissioners.
“Methodology concerns aside, we commissioned the reports with taxpayer funds, and I argued that they should be released,” he said, referring to the delay in the release of the voter ID report. “My view was that the public and the academics could determine whether it is rigorous and if it wasn’t then the egg was on our face for having commissioned it in the first place.”
In recent months, the commission has been criticized for failing to provide proper oversight of the technology laboratories that test electronic voting machines and software. The commission is also responsible for conducting research and advising policy makers on the implementation of the Help America Vote Act, the federal overhaul of election procedure prompted by the 2000 Florida debacle.
Eric Lipton contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Poll workers in Columbus, Ohio, last year for the first time recorded ID card information presented by voters.