Steve Connolly: Preserving election integrity means combating election fraud
For years, many people have claimed that in-person voter fraud was non-existent in this state. I and many others were certain that fraud and voter intimidation still exists within our borders. Prior to joining the Secretary of State’s Office, the two points of this argument talked past each other without evidence to support either side. We had no Voter ID law and no meaningful criminal outcomes demonstrating in-person voter fraud in West Virginia. What’s more, your average voter may not fully appreciate the seriousness of the issue thinking, “a couple of votes, what’s the big deal?”
So let’s identify the problem. Did you know that 54 state, local and municipal elections this year have been decided by single digits? You may have missed the news this January that the balance of power in the Virginia House of Delegates was decided by a coin toss due to a deadlocked vote count. Our democracy depends on accurate vote tallies, and even a couple of votes is serious business in tight races. Every fraudulent vote discounts or diminishes the vote of everyone who took time to properly cast a ballot.
With the secretary’s vision, we recognized early that addressing this problem from an investigative perspective requires a four-step approach: placing the right people at the right places to proactively prevent or swiftly respond to issues; working with our local, state and federal partners in the court system to get results; utilizing available data to focus resources; and engaging in public education efforts to stave off fraud.
Shortly after assuming office, we restructured the process for handling investigations. I supervise the Division, viewing matters through the eyes of a former prosecutor. I assign seasoned analysts to supervise all investigations, and cases are investigated by nearly a dozen former state and federal law enforcement officials poised at every corner of the state. Over the last 18 months, our revamped structure led to arresting and convicting double-voters, charging of a non-citizen registering and voting and nearly a dozen other criminal referrals around the state. In 2017, our unit closed 286 investigations, and we have resolved 105 cases so far this year.
To achieve success, we extended an open hand of cooperation to other agencies. In March of this year, we joined U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart’s Public Integrity Special Investigations Unit to share ideas, information and resources to effectively address the problem at every level of government. Our investigators have personally engaged with all 55 sheriffs’ offices and many other law enforcement agencies. Our investigative analyst uses accessible tools as a fusion liaison officer to narrow and maintain the focus of case management toward resolution. The relationships we have forged with our agency partners have continued to reap results.
The office also works closely with the available data from our statewide voter registrations system, county clerks and the DMV. The former practice of relying solely on formal complaints postures investigations as purely reactive from the onset. By working through the data, we have identified a host of incidences where ineligible individuals could have registered and/or voted. Part of the solution comes through accurate list maintenance to eliminate the opportunities for fraud - which has been discussed in a prior op-ed. Another facet is holding individuals accountable who “knowingly and willfully” register and/or vote while ineligible. When these cases are brought to the public’s attention, it results in a specific and general deterrent to engaging in this conduct.
Public education is the greatest weapon to fight voter fraud and intimidation. You may know of someone who lives in one place and votes somewhere else - or in both places. You might see someone too close to the polls handing out “slates” or “palm-cards” to voters as they enter and exit the precinct. You could observe candidates or supporters giving away free food, drinks and other things of value to voters at or near the polling places on election day. You could see someone being “helped to vote” in a voting booth when the voter is not disabled or does not require “assistance.” You may well feel pressured into voting in a certain manner by your employer, some organization or by those at the polls on election day. Or, there might be other forms of intimidation that make you feel uncomfortable during the election process. If any of these things happen, call us at (877) FRAUD-WV or file a complaint at https://sos.wv.gov/about/Pages/Investigations.aspx We stand ready to look into your issue and maintain your anonymity.
On Election Day, you should know that the full force of the Secretary of State’s Office, all 55 county clerks’ offices and 9,000 poll workers will be working overtime to allow our democracy to function. Although that constitutes a small army of people, we want EVERY voter to know that they have the right to prevent fraud. The power is in YOU! West Virginia Code 3-1-39 allows any qualified voter to go to the polling place and file an affidavit explaining why he or she believes someone is an illegal voter. That document will be sealed, preserved and must be investigated by law enforcement. We want 1.2 million Mountaineer voters helping all of us to make this election the cleanest in state history!
Our office understands the concern that many people have relating to voter fraud. We have worked very hard, and will continue to work harder, to ensure that each and every vote cast is valid and proper - that it is “easy to vote and hard to cheat” in West Virginia. We trust that voters recognize the strides being taken by this office to maintain the sacred nature of their vote.
Steve Connolly, Esq. WV Deputy Secretary of State and Chief Legal Counsel.