For most students, the 2004 presidential election is nothing but a memory, whether painful or ecstatic. But for a handful of Pennsylvanians, the taste of the election still lingers long after the polls have closed because of a voter-registration scam that left many staunchly Democratic voters registered as Republicans.
Across the United States, “Get Out the Vote” drives were the trend, attracting huge numbers on college campuses. However, in some instances, these campaigns went a little too far.
“I signed a petition to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes…and a few weeks later I got this [a voter registration card] in the mail,” Shamika A. Mitchell said, holding up her altered registration.
Mitchell, a New York resident and Temple extern, is registered as a Democrat in the state of New York. Weeks after she filed her absentee ballot in her home county, she received a confirmation of her registration in Pennsylvania, a registration she never filled out.
Confused by the mailing, Mitchell immediately contacted the Philadelphia County Board of Elections to find out why she had been registered in Pennsylvania.
“When I called the registration office they asked, ‘Did you sign a petition to legalize medicinal marijuana?’ and when I said ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘They think they’re slick,’ and started laughing,” Mitchell said.
What Mitchell experienced was voter fraud. However, hers was not the only case in this election. Whether the crimes were publicized or not, students from Florida, Nevada, and even Montgomery County complained of having their registrations switched after simply signing a petition.
“A lot of people weren’t registered without their knowing, they were registered after somebody said ‘sign this petition,'” said a representative from the County Board of Elections who asked to remain anonymous.
While it may seem like Mitchell’s case is the beginning of a large conspiracy theory, it is, as the Board of Elections said, probably just the work of political party employees. In this election, where grassroots campaigns played a large role, the Philadelphia County Board of Elections received between 30,000 and 40,000 registration forms from third party groups in the last weekend of registration.
For some, this surge in registration looks great for democracy. In Mitchell’s eyes, not all of these registrations are the real thing.
“When I got my card in the mail I was shocked. I did not register to vote. And, not to say anything, but I would not register Republican,” Mitchell said. “How many other people did this happen to?”
If a voter’s address is changed, or a new voter registration is filed without their knowing, the consequences can be huge. When an individual files a new registration form, election boards automatically erase any past record of registration in the same state and replace it with the new one. It can be a rude awakening for some in-state students when they find out their old voter registration has been replaced with a new one.
In Mitchell’s case, dual-registration did not present a problem. Because she was registered in the state of New York, her original registration survived. Mitchell’s ballot was cast and her vote was counted in the state of New York.
“My information went through because I’m a citizen of the state of New York,” she said. “Otherwise, if I was from Pennsylvania, I might have been in trouble.”
Mitchell also notified her home county in New York to make sure that her absentee ballot would still count. She wanted to make sure that “this registration didn’t threaten the validity,” of her vote.
However, Mitchell still wonders how the petitioners managed to register her to vote based only on her name and signature. According to the Board of Elections, it is easier than some may think to get an individual’s personal information.
“They have what are called street lists. They’ve got access to your information,” the representative said.
Mitchell sees her case of voter fraud as an invasion of privacy, and an attempt to disenfranchise voters. She still remembers the details of how she was asked to sign the petition.
Mitchell was approached “outside the Bell Tower. He asked if I could just sign a petition to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, not just to legalize it. Then we cracked a joke about Method Man and Redman, and I said, ‘Fine, I’ll sign it.’ He said they weren’t going to share my information.”
The team of petitioners that fooled Mitchell, a group she calls “a covert operation by the Republican party,” did not work just with partisan bias, but according to her, also with racial bias.
Mitchell said the group of African-American petitioners was looking only for African-Americans to sign the petition.
“They were definitely targeting blacks. I’m very aware about when people are only trying to target a certain audience.”
This year, the extremely active “Get Out the Vote” effort in Philadelphia County produced a 71 percent voter turnout. However, as Mitchell said, someone has to watch over these third party organizations that take part in the effort.
“Somebody, President Adamany, has to watch out for the students here. I just want to tell them ‘Don’t sign anything!'” Mitchell said.
While it is nearly impossible for the University to regulate who can and cannot walk on campus, programs like “Temple Votes” promote voter awareness among students, and keep them prepared for episodes of voter fraud.
The Board of Elections, while doing its best to seek out fraudulent groups, can only hope that voters can be smart about what they sign.
“We continue to get phone calls now about people who are in the same situations,” the representative said. “College students can come down here and register if they want to.”
For Mitchell, it will not be hard to remember this election in years to come. She’s been struck from the Philadelphia County voter records, and will continue to vote, as a Democrat, in the state of New York.
“I’m never signing a petition again,” Mitchell said.
Christopher Reber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.