Results of an ongoing Virginia State Police investigation of voter registration irregularities from the 2008 general election may signal a more significant voter fraud issue than some state lawmakers realized.
As Virginia legislators hotly debated a voter ID bill that narrowly passed the General Assembly, many were unaware of a state police investigation that, so far, has resulted in charges against 38 people statewide for voter fraud. Warrants have been obtained for a 39th person who can't be located.
A majority of those cases already have resulted in convictions, and 26 additional cases are still being actively investigated nearly 3½ years after the state Board of Elections forwarded more than 400 voter and election fraud allegations from 62 cities and counties to Virginia State Police for individual investigation.
"We believe these complaints ran the gamut from voter registration fraud issues through potential fraud at the polling place on Election Day," said Donald Palmer, secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections, who was appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell in February 2011. "We do not have specific numbers on how the complaints broke down. However, (the state board of elections) is aware that arrests have been made over the past few years for individuals engaging in voter registration fraud."
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Palmer added that recent indictments obtained by the Richmond commonwealth's attorney's office for voter fraud and the results of the state police investigation "remind us that unfortunately, fraud does exist in Virginia's elections."
Many opponents of the voter ID law maintained that there was no evidence of widespread election fraud in Virginia, and the law would suppress the vote of minorities and others who don't have adequate identification. About 3.7 million Virginians voted in the 2008 election.
Richmond had by far the largest number of voter-fraud cases opened by state police — 124 — followed by Fairfax County with 37, Chesterfield and Prince William counties with 20 each, Alexandria with 19, Henrico with 17 and Petersburg with 13, according to state police data requested by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
A total of 194 cases statewide where police determined a violation likely occurred have been closed because the commonwealth's attorneys in those localities declined to prosecute those individuals, police said.
"In some cases, the names were wrong, the individuals could not be located or there was something there that just could not justify the manpower and the resources that had to be devoted to tracking these individuals down, when you had such little to go with initially," said state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
Typically in criminal cases, Geller said, state police will fully investigate a criminal matter and then turn over its results to the commonwealth's attorney to determine whether it warrants prosecution. "But because we had so many (voter fraud complaints) — and this was unprecedented — we approached the commonwealth attorney in the very beginning," and a decision was made about whether to proceed before the investigation was completed.
State police said 82 cases were not prosecuted in Richmond, where Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring recently moved to indict 10 felons on charges of lying on registration forms during the 2008 election year. Elsewhere in Virginia, eight cases have resulted in an arrest in Chesterfield, four each in Mecklenburg and Nottoway, three in Fairfax, and one each in King and Queen, Loudoun, Madison, Powhatan, Prince William, Falls Church and Manassas, state police said.
Most were charged under a state statute that prohibits making false statements on an election form, but some were charged with illegally casting a ballot.
The majority of cases reviewed by The Times-Dispatch that resulted in arrests in central Virginia involved felons who either illegally registered to vote or who illegally voted in the general election, or both. Felons cannot vote in Virginia unless their rights are restored by the governor.
None of the cases appeared to involve someone who misrepresented his or her identity at the polls to vote.
The 400-plus fraud complaints were forwarded to state police in September 2008, before the November election, by then Board of Elections Secretary Nancy Rodriguez.
Authorities in several jurisdictions said the felons who were charged claimed they had been solicited to register to vote — despite their status as a felon — by people associated with voter advocacy or voter participation groups.
The solicitors, whom police have not been able to identify, apparently encouraged the felons to vote by suggesting that new legislation had restored their fights to vote or their status as a felon would be resolved in some other fashion.
"What that indicates to me, at least among certain groups, is there is an active effort to subvert the laws of the commonwealth," said Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Louisa, who as Louisa's former commonwealth's attorney prosecuted two felons for voter fraud in 2009.
In Chesterfield, the cases usually fell into three categories, said Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Kenneth Nickels. The felons would say: "I was a juvenile when (convicted) and I didn't think it could carry over; (the conviction) "was so long ago" it no longer mattered; "or somebody just told me that I could register and they would take care of getting my rights restored."
"I would say almost all of them voted," Nickels said.
Only one of the voter-fraud defendants in Chesterfield was convicted of a felony. The others were found guilty of reduced offenses, such as obstruction of justice.
The results of the state police investigation appears to contradict, to some degree, claims made by some opponents of the voter ID bill that no evidence existed of widespread voter fraud in Virginia. But it was unclear what, if any, impact that law would have had on preventing felons from illegally registering to vote or casting a ballot.
"It was frustrating for me to stand in committee or in the chamber of the Senate and relate with specificity actual investigations, charges and convictions for voter fraud, and then have someone on the other side of the aisle suggest that it didn't exist and it didn't happen — and we were more likely to find the Loch Ness monster," Garrett said.
The state police investigation and subsequent arrests, Garrett added, "absolutely validates the need" for the voter ID law.
Among the opponents, Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, D-Arlington, said during floor debate that the chances of being struck by lightning were higher than finding a case of voter fraud in Virginia. Lopez wasn't available for comment because of his schedule, an aide said.
Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, another strong opponent, said she, unlike some of her colleagues, more specifically questioned whether there was any widespread evidence of people committing fraud by showing up a the polls claiming to be someone they're not — "because that's what the voter ID law is supposed to fix."
"If we have a widespread number of felons showing up to vote when they can't, then the voter ID law is not going to fix that," McClellan added.
Even with the state police investigation, McClellan said, "My question would still be, how many of those (cases) are allegations of people coming to vote claiming to be someone that they're not?"
Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, questioned the timing of the release of the state police data after the voter ID issue has been debated by the legislature. "If that existed, why wasn't that information available before the debate?"
The data "doesn't convince me of anything other than the fact that somebody is trying to create an impression that doesn't exist," Marsh added.
Marsh also questioned whether felons being recruited by others to vote constituted election fraud by the the felon.
"If someone tells someone that they can vote, and they believe it, and they present themselves and don't change their identity, then that might be a mistake," Marsh said. "But that's not voter fraud in the sense that we were told that it existed."
Garrett, a strong proponent of the voter ID law and other election fraud legislation, believes the bill would have prevented felons from voting in the 2008 election had it been in place — combined with a companion piece of legislation passed this session that requires local registrars to purge felons or anyone else illegally registered to vote from voting roles several weeks before an election.
Under that law, registrars are required to send prompt notice to anyone whose voting registration has been canceled and report to the local prosecutor's office any registered voter who has made a false statement on his application about having been convicted of a felony.
If that person then shows up to vote, "the only way to catch them is through the voter ID bill — should they come in claiming to be actually who they are," Garrett said.