It was an article of faith in the George W. Bush administration and among its congressional allies that voter fraud, presumably in aid of Democrats, was widespread.
Despite a five-year investigation and the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for showing insufficient zeal in pursuit of that probe, little or no evidence of widespread, let alone systematic, voter fraud surfaced. While there were incidents of irregularities, they often turned out to be due to incompetence, confusing state regulations and underfunded election boards.
Many of these charges of fraud were made in anticipation of a close election, and the same thing has happened in this voting cycle where, in theory, a few hundred votes could hand the White House to one party or another.
The operative phrase this time was “voter suppression” rather than fraud, the charge being that because Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was trailing badly among certain ethnic and racial groups, his electoral chances would be helped immensely if large numbers of people in those groups could be prevented from voting through onerous voter-ID laws or tricked or frightened into staying home.
For example, a billboard in Cleveland in a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood warned of jail terms and fines for voter fraud. Robocalls in targeted neighborhoods maliciously informed voters that they didn’t have to vote Tuesday, but could wait until Wednesday or Thursday. There were reports that black neighborhoods in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, all battleground states, had been receiving calls saying that the recipient of the call was eligible to vote by phone. Certain Florida Republicans were targeted with fraudulent letters on official-looking letterhead saying they had to provide proof of citizenship to vote.
As Election Day wore on, there were accounts of a voting machine in central Pennsylvania that automatically recorded all presidential ballots cast, except curiously for one minor-party candidate, as a vote for Romney. That glitch was quickly corrected.
Reports of Black Panther intimidation of voters in a Philadelphia precinct, a rerun of a 2008 charge there, turned out to be overblown. And so far, fears of hacking into the computers that tabulate electronic voting have not proven out.
The most effective form of voter suppression – although the courts have largely blocked it – are laws demanding a special form of photo voter ID that is often difficult and inconvenient to obtain.
Allegations of voter fraud, however ill-founded, have resulted in both major parties deploying platoons of lawyers on standby to react instantly to any charges of irregularities.
That is not to say the election will not have its rough patches. Ohio has such a complicated process for counting challenged or irregular ballots that the outcome of a genuinely close election could be weeks in coming.
The biggest threat to a smoothly running election with quickly available and widely accepted results will more likely be bureaucracy than fraud.