Kevin Drum at Mother Jones takes another look at the myth of voter fraud, a dark tale being told over and over again by Republicans in order to justify regressive policies that make it far more difficult for people — especially those likely to support Democrats — to vote.
In her 2010 book, The Myth of Voter Fraud, Lorraine Minnite tracked down every single case brought by the Justice Department between 1996 and 2005 and found that the number of defendants had increased by roughly 1,000 percent under Ashcroft. But that only represents an increase from about six defendants per year to 60, and only a fraction of those were ever convicted of anything. A New York Times investigation in 2007 concluded that only 86 people had been convicted of voter fraud during the previous five years. Many of those appear to have simply made mistakes on registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, and more than 30 of the rest were penny-ante vote-buying schemes in local races for judge or sheriff. The investigation found virtually no evidence of any organized efforts to skew elections at the federal level.
Another set of studies has examined the claims of activist groups like Thor Hearne’s American Center for Voting Rights, which released a report in 2005 citing more than 100 cases involving nearly 300,000 allegedly fraudulent votes during the 2004 election cycle. The charges involved sensational-sounding allegations of double-voting, fraudulent addresses, and voting by felons and noncitizens. But in virtually every case they dissolved upon investigation. Some of them were just flatly false, and others were the result of clerical errors. Minnite painstakingly investigated each of the center’s charges individually and found only 185 votes that were even potentially fraudulent.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has focused on voter fraud issues for years. In a 2007 report they concluded that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” In the Missouri election of 2000 that got Sen. Bond so worked up, the Center found a grand total of four cases of people voting twice, out of more than 2 million ballots cast. In the end, the verified fraud rate was 0.0003 percent.
One key detail: The best-publicized fraud cases involve either absentee ballots or voter registration fraud (for example, paid signature gatherers filling in “Mary Poppins” on the forms, a form of cheating that’s routinely caught by registrars already). But photo ID laws can’t stop that: They only affect people actually trying to impersonate someone else at the polling place. And there’s virtually no record, either now or in the past, of this happening on a large scale.
What’s more, a moment’s thought suggests that this is vanishingly unlikely to be a severe problem, since there are few individuals willing to risk a felony charge merely to cast one extra vote and few organizations willing or able to organize large-scale in-person fraud and keep it a secret. When Indiana’s photo ID law, designed to prevent precisely this kind of fraud, went to the Supreme Court, the state couldn’t document a single case of it happening. As the majority opinion in Crawford admits, “The record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.”
This mountain of evidence suggests to most liberals that there’s another agenda at work: suppressing votes from Democratic-leaning populations. And Minnite’s research confirms a partisan tilt. Today’s voter ID laws are championed “almost exclusively by Republicans,” she told me, and, with only one exception, have been enacted only when Republicans have unified control in a state capitol.
That is not a coincidence. This is a deliberate political strategy to disenfranchise as many people who are likely to vote for their opponents as possible. The disenfranchising of tens or hundreds of thousands of voters in a state is far, far more likely to swing an election than a handful of people voting twice or impersonating another voter, at great risk to themselves.