As the presidential race tightens and the fierce rivals try to win every vote they can, experts say flawed safeguards could allow people who live in two states to vote twice for their favorite candidate.
Those same double-voters could cast ballots in congressional races in two different states, possibly affecting this year's pivotal election when both political parties are vying for control of the U.S. Senate and House.
Double voting is especially a concern in Florida, where a myriad part-time residents, known as snowbirds, have a second home in a different state, giving them the chance to register to vote in two states, according to elections supervisors. Absentee ballots, which are growing more popular, make it easier to pull off this fraud because the person doesn't need to travel to both places.
The problem stems largely because there's no national database that enables all states to cross-check registration and voting records, a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.
And no easy solutions exist. In 20 states where officials match records, thousands of people turned up as possibly double voting during the 2010 general election. But these cross-check systems have a lag and often don't catch questionable votes until long after an election is over.
With the presidential race and many congressional contests expected to be tight, a few thousand fraudulent votes could affect the outcome of a race, say elections officials, who think the number of people who could vote in two states is much greater than that.
"Having the ability to vote twice in a national election could skew a national election if it's close," said Vicki Davis, Martin County supervisor of elections.
Politicians and the media have focused on ineligible voters such as felons and illegal immigrants possibly casting ballots and have given little attention to double voting.
That is, until last month when Wendy Rosen, a Maryland congressional Democratic candidate, withdrew from the race when her state party claimed she voted in Maryland and Pinellas County during the 2006 general election and 2008 primaries. Neither Maryland nor Florida authorities have pursued a criminal investigation.
Election supervisors say preventing this type of fraud is paramount because once an unlawful ballot is cast, it can't be reversed, even if the person is convicted of the crime.
"You have no way of figuring out which ballot was theirs," said Leslie Swan, Indian River County supervisor of elections.
Election officials interviewed for this story all agreed a national database would be the best way to curtail this crime.
U.S. Department of Justice officials declined to comment about double voting and whether federal agencies should create a national system to cross-check voter registrations in every state.
Two different groups of states, with a total of 20 states participating, have begun cross-checking each other's voter registrations. Illinois found almost 7,600 potential cases of people double voting in an election since 2006. Still, these programs fall far short of a nationwide tracking system.
Florida's election officials have expressed interest in joining the two separate interstate cross-checking networks. Because of the technical complexity, the Sunshine State can do so no sooner than 2013 — after the presidential election is over.
Since the controversial 2000 presidential election in which ballots were mishandled in Florida, most states have developed policies to keep people from voting in two counties. However, most of the statewide systems do little to deter interstate fraud.
Voter fraud is a third-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Voter identification rules have become highly partisan and vary state to state. Republicans argue the rules are needed to keep felons, illegal immigrants and other unlawful voters off the rolls, while Democrats contend they disenfranchise the elderly and poor minorities who don't own cars and thus have no driver's licenses to use as ID.
In Florida, where ID rules are more strict than in many states, determined scammers could skirt the safeguards, elections officials say.
That's because the ID requirements are designed to prove you're who you claim to be — a U.S. citizen who's allowed to vote — and not whether you're registered in only one state, Swan said.
She said when someone moves here from another state such as New York, officials notify the resident's former county that the person is now registered to vote in Florida.
But there's a loophole.
People can use a passport instead of a Florida driver's license as ID when registering or voting at the polling site. The passport has no address on it.
This means a scofflaw can lie about where he came from. And he can keep his driver's license from his former state rather than replacing it with a Florida license.
The person can continue using the driver's license as ID in the other state, including
to register to vote.
Florida officials probably wouldn't catch such out-of-state registrations because voter information isn't tracked nationally, Swan said. Despite the increasing number of checks, voters still must be relied upon not to lie, under penalty of law, she said.
"I have to take their word everything they say is true and accurate," Swan said.
SAME PROBLEMS ELSEWHERE
Elections officials in New York, Illinois and Ohio — states where many Florida snowbirds live part time — describe similar shortcomings.
New York has most of the same registration rules as Florida. Applicants must have valid ID and a utility bill verifying the current address. New York officials notify the applicant's previous county elections office of the new residence, so the person can be removed from that county's voters' rolls.
However, the lack of a national database makes it impossible to check every state where the person could live and be registered to vote, said John Conklin, spokesman for the New York elections board.
"There is definitely an honor system," Conklin said.
Absentee voting could make the double-dipping easier to pull off. The person can request a Florida ballot be mailed to, say, New York, then vote in both states if he managed to double register.
Leon Geary, a retired doctor, is a Vero Beach resident who spends half the year in North Carolina.
North Carolina, he said, doesn't require residents to show a driver's license when either registering or voting.
An online voter registration form lets applicants use the last four digits of their Social Security number instead of a North Carolina driver's license number. Aside from that, Geary merely has to put down his and his wife's seasonal home as their residence.
"I think we could vote in both places," he said, adding he has no intention of doing so. "I would think there would be a small number of people who would do that."
Many states view double voting as a significant problem. An increasing number have begun teaming up to cross-check each other's voter records.
One consortium has 15 states. Another alliance, which has seven states, flagged Rosen's voting history.
Beyond minor overlap — Colorado and Utah belong to both groups — the networks don't share information with one another. And they omit dozens of states, creating large gaps in coverage.
Still, the networks are growing, with more states — including Florida — wanting to sign on.
"The mere possibility that voters could be registered in more than one state needs a closer look," said Chris Cate, Florida elections division spokesman. "If there's a way to prevent that from happening, we should pursue (it)."
In 2006, the Kansas Secretary of State launched what has become a 15-state cross-checking program. Every January, these states send their voter records to an Arkansas technical team, which checks for duplicate registrations and double voting. About 45.2 million records were examined this year.
Brad Bryant, who oversees Kansas' elections, said he and other state leaders started the program because they suspected duplicate registrations and some double voting were happening.
"Everybody knows there are duplications from state to state," Bryant said. "We found quite a bit of that."
In January, the 15 states tallied 1.4 million duplicates. Most duplicates are unintentional, Bryant said, noting elections supervisors often fail to purge outdated registrations.
Ironclad cases of people voting unlawfully in two states are far fewer, he said. In the past six years, 16 people in Kansas have been prosecuted for such a felony.
On Sept. 25, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett announced nine people were being investigated for possibly voting twice in the 2008 election. Bennett credited the cross-check program for the state catching the suspects.
Illinois, a state with 7.5 million registered voters, had much larger numbers. Of its 211,000 duplicates, it flagged 7,577 people who might have double-voted in states within the network.
Kyle Thomas, Illinois director of voter services, said the numbers should be viewed with caution.
Many wind up being people with similar names, and a few will even have matching names and birth dates, Thomas said. Also, driver's license numbers vary in different states, making it more difficult to verify the same person voted twice.
Still, the system has caught people who double-voted, he said. It's difficult to give exact numbers of those arrested and convicted, he said, because the counties determine which cases to prosecute.
The network's limited scope leaves room to double vote in states that aren't members, Thomas said.
"There's nothing in the process to keep someone from maliciously registering in more than one state," Thomas said.
MORE CHECKS NEEDED
The nonprofit Pew Center on the States is cultivating the other cross-check network with the goal of eventually making it nationwide. This program, aside from catching potential double
voters, is designed to boost efficiency in record keeping.
So far, seven states have signed on and another 12 states and the District of Columbia are expected to join.
Swan said the more states that Florida can exchange voter data with, the better.
Gertrude Walker, St. Lucie County elections supervisor, said she knows there are residents who spend part of the year in Florida and part of the year elsewhere who are registered to vote in more than one state, though she has no idea how many.
"It's a real possibility and something we should be concerned about," Walker said.
Walker thinks one way to discourage voters from double-dipping is to toughen the penalties, perhaps to pay higher fines or do more prison time.
"People would think twice," she said.
Interstate cross-check programs that Florida plans to join
15-state consortium: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee
Pew Center of States consortium: Delaware, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Utah, Virginia, Washington
Planning to join Pew consortium: Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington, D.C.
Top 5 states in Kansas consortium with most duplicate registrations
Note: Most duplicate registrations are not attempts to double vote.
Source: Kansas Secretary of State
Voter fraud is a third-degree felony in Florida, punishable by up to five years in prison.