The Campaign Against Voter Fraud
Don Quixote battling against windmills that he imagines to be giants is one of the most iconic, and amusing, images in literature. The story would have a very different, more sinister, character, however, if Don Quixote actually had the power and influence to shut down the windmills and deprive people of bread. For the past decade, the conservative movement has been on a crusade against an imaginary menace. Unfortunately, these efforts are beginning to have a very real effect on American democracy and on our most vulnerable citizens.
Put simply, America does not have a problem with voter fraud. During the Bush administration, the Justice Department launched an extensive effort to investigate and prosecute alleged voter fraud. The effort was such a high priority for the Bush administration that failure to adequately prosecute alleged voter fraud was part of the motivation for the controversial dismissal of several U.S. attorneys. However, this effort uncovered “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” Those cases that were brought were largely isolated instances of felons and immigrants—often unaware that they were ineligible—voting, or voters mistakenly filling out multiple registration forms. A comprehensive study of voter fraud released near the end of the Bush administration by NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice found that “many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire. The allegations simply do not pan out.”
When Bush left power, the fight against “voter fraud” was carried on by provocateurs in the conservative media, led by professional punk James O’Keefe. O’Keefe has turned the focus of his stunt journalism on exposing voter fraud, releasing videos that purport to show how easy and widespread voter fraud is. Not surprisingly, given O’Keefe’s track record, the instances of voter fraud O’Keefe claims to have uncovered are not fraud at all. The bulk of O’Keefe’s videos—such as one where a man claims to be Attorney General Eric Holder and obtains his ballot—merely show the possibility, rather than the existence, of voter fraud. The only people actually committing voter fraud in O’Keefe’s videos are O’Keefe and his cohorts.
Unfortunately, the hysteria fostered by O’Keefe and others is having a real impact. Thirty-three states have some form of voter ID laws, with most of these laws being passed in the last decade. Some form of voter ID legislation is currently pending in thirty-two states. Sixteen states have enacted photo ID requirements for voting—nine of these within the past year, including the large and electorally important commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is trying to put a happy face on its new law, but the Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House, Mike Turzai, slipped up and revealed the real goal of Pennsylvania’s law and others like it: aiding the election of Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates. While there is no evidence that the new law will stop any actual fraud, there is plenty of reason to believe that it will prevent or deter many eligible voters from exercising their most fundamental civil right. Only 91% of eligible Pennsylvania voters have the ID required by the new law, rather than the 99% claimed by the law’s supporters. Those without the required ID are disproportionately from groups that are more likely to vote Democratic: the poor, minority voters, and younger voters.
Beyond the evidence not supporting the allegations of voter fraud, the hysteria makes little intuitive sense. As Christopher Beam demonstrated in Slate in 2010, the risk vs. reward of committing voter fraud simply does not line up. There are no doubt gaps and inefficiencies in our voting procedures, and O’Keefe’s videos do show those gaps: counties simply do not have the resources to effectively scrutinize every registration form they receive and every voter that comes to the polls. However, to exploit these gaps on a scale large enough to swing an election would require the involvement of such a large number of people that exposure would be almost guaranteed. The only way to effectively swing an election through fraud is through corrupt election officials, where a small number of people can influence the counting of a large number of votes. But this kind of fraud is unaffected by voter ID requirements. If large scale voting fraud were actually taking place, there’s no doubt that the Bush Justice Department or conservative media would have uncovered it. Absent strong evidence that voter fraud is a real problem, the mere possibility that an inconsequential number of people could cast fraudulent votes is not a justification for effectively disenfranchising a large segment of the population.
There’s an interesting contrast to be drawn between the conservative line on voter fraud and the conservative line on gun control. Every time an actual, verified incident of gun violence leads to calls for stricter regulation of gun ownership, conservatives howl that the bad actions of some do not justify infringing on the rights of all gun owners. Yet in the voting context, conservatives use the speculative possibility that some bad actors could cast fraudulent votes as a justification for impeding millions of law-abiding citizens from exercising the most basic of civil rights.
As Turzai’s comments reveal, Republicans enacting voter ID laws lack both Don Quixote’s harmlessness and his good intentions. Their claims to be protecting democracy are simply a shield for their efforts to undermine it in the interest of electing Republican candidates. And that fraud actually does have the potential to swing elections.