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Michael A. Smith: Voter-fraud story doesn’t hold up

  • Published Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Few neighborhoods have a more storied, rough-and-tumble political history than Old Northeast, or “North End,” in Kansas City, Mo. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, this community of beautiful, historic homes remains a landing pad for immigrants: once from Italy, now from Mexico, Vietnam and Somalia. It was the home of early K.C.’s Rabbits and Goats factions, who battled like the toughs in Martin Scorsese’s film “Gangs of New York.” It was the center of local Mafia operations until the 1980s.

The community also formed the political base of “Boss Tom” Pendergast, who made K.C. a speakeasy jazz town during Prohibition. Pendergast was a master of voter fraud, culling votes for his candidates from day workers who lived outside the city, ballots filled out for people who didn’t actually vote, and so on. Boss Tom rose to control the state of Missouri and even parts of Kansas from his small K.C. office, and he launched Harry Truman on a trajectory that ended in the White House.

That was a wide-open time, when little was done to stop voter fraud. Today, enforcement of existing laws make these tactics obsolete, even in states like Missouri, which, unlike Kansas, have no photo-ID or birth-certificate requirements.

Old Northeast is back on the political stage, closely watched by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. True to its history, the area recently witnessed an election-fraud flap. J.J. Rizzo, scion of a local political family, defeated Will Royster by one vote in the 2010 Democratic primary for Missouri state representative. An angry Royster alleged voter fraud. Recently, the Kansas City Election Board found that Rizzo’s aunt and uncle illegally changed their address from suburban K.C. to an apartment in Rizzo’s would-be district just a few days before the election, then cast the votes creating Rizzo’s tiny margin of victory. The aunt and uncle pleaded guilty earlier this year, losing their voting privileges for life.

Reporters covering the story found that the election was sloppily conducted: There was electioneering in the polling place, and some ballots lacked judges’ initials. These problems were violations of existing election laws. They could be solved with better enforcement of those laws. Critics allege misdeeds by the local Somali community, but the election board could not substantiate these charges.

Kobach loves to tell this story, often forgetting to mention that it didn’t occur in Kansas, that it comes down to two votes cast by a candidate’s aunt and uncle, and that the perpetrators were caught and prosecuted in a state with no photo ID or birth certificate requirement. Imagery of illegal immigrant hordes casting ballots serves as a powerful underpinning for Kobach’s relentless drive to restrict voting laws. These laws currently leave more than 18,000 Kansans in a strange limbo, with their voting rights neither affirmed nor denied, all due to their not providing birth certificates when obtaining driver’s licenses.

Once, rules were bent to record illegal votes. This still happens today. Though rare, it does make a case for better enforcement of existing election laws. However, instead of doing this, Kobach pushes for new laws denying legal voters their hard-fought right to cast a ballot, using unnecessary hurdles and severe requirements for proof of citizenship. Times, neighborhoods and politicians all change, but the cutthroat will of some politicos to win by any means necessary is alive and well.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor at Emporia State University.

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