From Border Ruffian to Florida Man: The Evolution of Voter Fraud in American History

“The biggest voter fraud EVER in HISTORY!!!”

Voter fraud is on everybody’s Twitter feed these days. While most everyone concedes that in person voting fraud is a minor problem, one Panama City, Florida man is poised to take it to the next level, and he is urging others to join him. Attorney Bill Price has come under investigation for declaring his plan to move temporarily to Georgia so that he can vote for the two Republicans in the January 5, 2021, Senate run-off election. 

As reported by Fox News, attorney Bill Price made his pitch in a speech to the Bay County Republican Party. “If we lose the Senate on Jan. 5 in Georgia, we will become Venezuela,” he exclaimed, as evidenced by a video posted to the organization’s Facebook page, adding “I will invite each and every one of you to be my roommate.” Price announced his brother’s address in Georgia, and encouraged others to come along with him. “We have to start fighting back and we have to do whatever it takes,” he said. “And if that means changing your address for the next two months, so be it.” Saying that he was immediately changing his voter registration, Price assured his colleagues that “We’ll make room for you at the dinner table.”

Price may have been fantasizing when he called for “two million people” to join his registration drive, but It turns out that Georgia sets no minimum length of residency for voting. Thus, as one Voter Guide puts it, “if you have just moved here you can register to vote on day one.”  Georgia does require an ID, with acceptable forms of documentation varying for both registration and voting, but it is not hard to obtain. Residency can be proven for registration purposes by a utility bill or bank statement, and valid forms of voter ID include U.S. passports. For those in doubt, free state ID cards may be obtained at any County Board of Registrars’ Office or the Georgia Department of Driver Services. 

The registration deadline for the runoff election is Tuesday, December 7, 2020, leaving a few more days for out-of-staters to become nominally legal Georgia voters.

There happens to be a precedent in U.S. history for moving across state lines in order to influence an election, but it isn’t pretty and nothing good came from it. In 1855, the newly organized Kansas Territory held its first legislative election. Kansas had already become an armed battleground between pro-slavery settlers and anti-slavery “emigrants,” but the pro-slavery forces were determined to take no chances. Nearly 5000 “border ruffians” from Missouri heard the call of their home-state senator David Atchison and flooded into Kansas. “There are eleven hundred men coming over from Platte County to vote,” boasted Atchison, “and if that ain’t enough we can send five thousand.” The result was a territorial legislature with a 36-3 pro-slavery majority.

That was not the end of it. The newly seated legislature passed a draconian “slave code,” making it a crime even to advocate abolition and imposing the death penalty for encouraging “Negro rebellion.” In 1857, the same legislature called for a constitutional convention, with the aim of petitioning for admission to the Union as a slave state. The resulting document, known as the Lecompton Constitution, declared the right “of the owner of a slave” to be “inviolable.”

President Buchanan presented the Lecompton Constitution to Congress in early 1858, recommending the admission of Kansas, to be “as much a slave state as Georgia or South Carolina.” The opposition was led by Illinois senator – and Abraham Lincoln’s foil – Stephen Douglas, who overcame his own pro-slavery sentiments in light of the rigged elections behind the Lecompton Constitution itself. He could never vote, he declared, to “force this constitution down the throats of the people of Kansas, in opposition to their wishes.” Despite Douglas’s efforts, the Lecompton Constitution was accepted by the Senate, only to be rejected by the House of Representatives a few days later.

The attempt to impose a bogus constitution based on the ballots of Missourians was only one small part of the pro-slavery “Crime against Kansas,” which included outrages such as the sack of Lawrence, the Free-State capital. But the congressional rejection of the Lecompton Constitution, under the pro-slavery Buchanan administration, and in a national political climate that could hardly be called free-soil, demonstrated the importance attached to the legitimacy of elections. Stephen Douglas, never known for humanitarian sentiments, was willing to buck his own party and risk his political future rather than accept an election dominated by non-residents.

Bill Price probably isn’t a border ruffian. He told Fox News that he was joking about changing his registration, and nobody is really likely to move to Georgia just so they can vote. But Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger isn’t taking any chances. He issued a warning that “Groups that finance or organize such efforts are involved in conspiracy to commit voter fraud and could be charged under Georgia’s Racketeering Conspiracy laws.” In any case, even a hint of illegitimacy threatens further to undermine the process. Americans with better principles than Stephen Douglas will object if either Senate election even appears to have been determined by temporary residents taking advantage of Georgia’s well-intentioned voting laws.

Steven Lubet is the Edna B. and Ednyfed H. Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University. As Director of the Law School’s award winning Bartlit Center on Trial Advocacy, he teaches courses on Legal Ethics, Trial Advocacy, Lawyer Memoirs, and Narrative Structures. The author of fifteen books and over 100 articles on legal ethics, judicial ethics, and litigation, he has also published widely in the areas of legal history, international criminal law, dispute resolution, and legal education.  He blogs at The Faculty Lounge.