The Myth of Voter Fraud

The Supreme Court recently ruled that it’s okay for states to require voters to show official identification papers before they are allowed to vote. The case, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, came from Indiana. Some predict now that the voter identification requirements will spread like wildfire and become more restrictive.
Full disclosure: I helped write an amicus curiae brief supporting those who challenged the voter ID requirement and lost. My client was ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN has registered millions of low and middle-income voters in the last eight years, a truly good thing.
ACORN’s reward has been to be targeted by some partisan (i.e., Republican) prosecutors for supposed voter fraud. In our brief, we tried to explain to the Supreme Court that the notion that people fake their identities to vote is a paranoid fantasy. The problem in this country is getting people to the polling place; nobody (or hardly anyone) is trying to vote more than once, or when they’re not entitled to.
We knew the case was an uphill slog, even though the challengers had a terrific Supreme Court advocate, Paul Smith of Jenner & Block in D.C. The problem, in part, is that an ID requirement seems sort of reasonable. You need an ID to get on an airplane. Or to cash a check. Why not to vote?
Two reasons. One, there really are people in this country who don’t have IDs. They are usually poor or old. Gail Collins in the New York Times reported that in the recent Indiana presidential primary, the Indiana voter ID law was used to exclude from voting the residents of Saint Mary’s Convent in South Bend, “all in their 80s and 90s.” The Indiana laws, Ms. Collins concluded, “are demonstrably good at protecting the public from a 98-year-old ballot-wielding nun.” Twelve of these electoral desperadoes were turned away from voting.
The second reason is that a voter ID law can be used by mean-spirited people as a tool for intimidating poor and uneducated voters and simply discouraging them from voting. If enough voters are challenged for ID, and the process of examining their ID takes long enough, the lines build at the polling places in the other guy’s strong precincts, and people get discouraged and leave because they have to pick up the kids or get dinner on the table. Don’t smirk. It happens. A lot.
In our brief, we confronted the myth of “voter impersonation fraud.” ACORN has been accused on a number of occasions, all around the country, of sponsoring such fraud. In each circumstance, either there has been no error whatever, or there were a few routine administrative errors which did NOT result in any unqualified voter casting a ballot.
The mythical quality of the voter impersonation accusation was amply illustrated by the opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy), which stated, “flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, [and] occasional examples have surfaced in recent years.”
Wow. Sounds bad. So, what was his evidence?
1. “New York City elections of the late nineteenth century, conducted under the influence of the Tammany Hall political machine.” Really? We’re still worried about them?
2. And (hold onto your hats) a investigation of 19 supposed “ghost voters” in Washington state in 2004 determined that one — count him, ONE — voter “committed in-person voting fraud.”
That was it. That was all he had.
And for that one guy in Washington state, we gum up the lines on Election Day and drive people away from voting. So the next time somebody talks about voter ID laws, think about WHY they want them, how they will use them, and whether the rest of us really need them.