Barbara Burt is director of election reform programs for Common Cause. Jonah Goldman is director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections with Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The scandal involving Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, some for alleged lack of vigor in pursuing voter fraud, provides us with a peek into the machinations of politicians who attempt to manipulate the election system for their own benefit. The rapidly unfolding facts highlight how unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud are used as a proxy for political decision-making designed to disenfranchise eligible Americans. It is a shame that some in the Justice Department, an agency with a noble history of defending the rights of all Americans to cast a ballot, are focusing instead on strategies to remove politically “undesirable” voters from the process.
Unfortunately, it is not just the Department of Justice that is taking advantage of this nefarious strategy. In the past few years, legislation requiring voters to show photo identification or even proof of citizenship has appeared on the docket in two-thirds of our state legislatures. Last year, the U.S. House passed a voter ID law, the justification for which was rampant voter fraud.
The problem is that there is no evidence that voter fraud affects our election outcomes. Do a few voters perpetrate fraud? Yes. But despite its insistence that voter fraud is enough of a problem to embroil otherwise high-performing United States attorneys in a scandal that may bring down the attorney general, the Department of Justice has convicted fewer than 100 people of voter fraud out of more than 275 million votes cast during the past five years.
The number of federal prosecutions is not the only evidence undermining the voter fraud argument. The case has been further weakened by various academic studies and reports. Most recently, Barnard College professor Lorraine Minnite explored the issue in her report, “The Politics of Voter Fraud,” published by ProjectVote. Minnite found that:
Most voter fraud allegations turn out to be something other than fraud. ... Reports of voter fraud were most often limited to local races and individual acts and fell into three categories: unsubstantiated or false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error.
Why, when too many voters must contend with electronic voting machines that routinely lose thousands of votes, forced to wait in lines that last for hours, are mistakenly purged from voter lists by the thousands, receive incorrect directions from overstressed poll workers and face a myriad of other problems, would lawmakers focus on a problem that barely exists? Could there be an ulterior motive for calling for harsh voter identification requirements?
Like the poll taxes and citizenship tests of old, ID requirements are effective at depressing voter turnout among particular groups. In 2006, research by the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice found that a quarter of all African American citizens don’t have government-issued photo identification, 18 percent of citizens 65 and older don’t have photo ID and at least 15 percent of citizens earning less than $35,000 lack photo ID.
The problem for politicians hoping to selectively depress voter turnout is this: Without voter fraud, there’s no justification for restrictive ID requirements. Thus, there’s pressure on U.S. attorneys to find and prosecute examples of voter fraud. But U.S. attorneys can’t manufacture fraud cases out of thin air. It appears that frustration with this inability to find voter fraud cases was so great that those in charge asked for a new round of U.S. attorneys, in hopes that they’d be easier to push around.
And the quest to substantiate claims of rampant voter fraud has tainted more than the Department of Justice. Just as U.S. attorneys—ostensibly independent and unbiased upholders of the law—have been pulled into the voter fraud quagmire, so has the Election Assistance Commission, the group charged with “serving as a national clearinghouse and resource of information regarding election administration.” A report commissioned by the EAC on the topic of voter fraud was released to the public in altered form, which became apparent when an interim report was released to USA Today. That version concluded that the isolated, often accidental incidents of individual voter fraud do not influence the outcomes of our elections. While the reason given by Commissioner Paul DeGregorio for censoring the original report was that there was a difference of opinion regarding the report’s findings, it seems instead that the results, although accurate and decisive, were not politically expedient.
Elections exist to determine the will of the voters. Although voters are often partisans, they don’t want partisan policies to skew the results. While voter fraud should be deplored and prosecuted fully, the cynical manipulation of elections for partisan gain is a crime far more dangerous to our country, and one for which there should be zero tolerance. Voter confidence that elections are fairly administered is what gives our government legitimacy. If our elections are impeachable, then so are our elected officials.