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'Voter Fraud' Phantom Returns to Haunt Policy Makers and Voters Themselves

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

A year has passed since the U.S. Attorneys scandal first gathered steam for the firings of nine federal prosecutors - at least two of whom claim being "pressured by Republicans to bring charges of voter fraud against people who intended to [vote] for Democrats." But the issue is far from settled. This week, the phantom issue of "voter fraud" emerged in the guise of news stories, editorials, memos, blogs, legislation, and even a Senate hearing either extinguishing or inflaming the alleged election integrity problem, particularly regarding voter identification requirements. Ultimately, what has become most evident in the last year is how far partisans are willing to go in order to legalize voter suppression tactics through the smoke-screen of "voter fraud."

As we progress deeper into the election season, we expect accusations of voter fraud to increase in number, become more aggressive in tone, and continue to precede strident calls for a range of voter suppression tactics, including draconian voter ID requirements. In this climate we feel it is vital to reiterate the definition of voter fraud. Voter fraud is "'the intentional corruption of the electoral process by the voter'...All other forms of corruption of the electoral process and corruption committed by elected or election officials, candidates, party organizations, advocacy groups or campa This definition is especially helpful to keep in mind in evaluating voter ID proposals, almost all of which are designed to prevent only the very rare polling-place fraud and never target absentee voter fraud, where the bulk of the (very small number of) convictions for fraud have occurred.

Stories in advance of Mississippi's primary election highlight this dichotomy. An Associated Press headline announcing the indictment of 16 Benton County individuals for voter fraud in a 2007 county election greeted voters in the state on Tuesday. Some of the "voter fraud" activity appears to actually be an election fraud scheme, as outlined in this January article on the same defendants. This "voter fraud" news arrived just in time to back Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's aggressive calls for voter ID laws.

Although they "don't have voter ID [requirements] just yet," Hinds County, Miss. voters who registered to vote by mail or through a voter registration drives were alerted to bring proof of identification to the polls Tuesday. The county circuit court's office made this announcement on Election Day through Jackson, Miss. broadcast news channel, WLBT 3.

Currently, 27 states require proof-of-identification beyond what is mandated by the Help America Vote Act. Like Mississippi, Oklahoma lawmakers "are wanting to be included in that number," the Norman Transcript editorialized Wednesday, dismissing the state House's passage of a voter ID bill as a ticket to an expensive partisan battle. "We see no real reason for states to tackle this issues...States shouldn't feel beholden to try and step up just because some lawmakers found it to be a hot button, election-year issue."

The primacy of voter fraud and voter ID as tools of partisan voter suppression became crystal clear in the wake of the US Attorney's scandal and the exposure of widespread politicization of the Department of Justice. "In an interview, [former U.S. attorney of New Mexico, David Iglesias] said he intends to recount how his office was pressured to file voter fraud charges," which he ultimately found to be "'non-provable in court,'" writer Jason Leopold blogged Sunday. This recounting was part of his testimony in a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday.

In related news, former counsel to the assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Section and crusader for Georgia's controversial voter ID law, Hans von Spakovskey recently published a legal memo on "voter impersonation" with the conservative group, The Heritage Foundation. Von Spakovsky advances an argument that preventing fraud through voter identification requirements will help "assure" voters that "free elections remain untainted by fraud that undermines their fairness, and in turn, disappoints the expectations of the voting public." This argument ignores or minimizes the fact that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in U.S. elections.

One real voter fraud issue that most voter ID laws and proposals do not address involves absentee balloting, an increasingly popular method of voting. This is astonishing considering that absentee voting is "where fraud through forgery or undue influence, often directly implicating candidates or their close associates, is far more of a threat," according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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Out of the 21 states Project Vote is currently monitoring for election-related bills, 15 have introduced voter identification requirements this session. Only one state, Indiana, addresses absentee voting by repealing a current provision to exempt absentee voters from the state's strict voter identification requirement. The bill, S 174, remains inactive in the state Senate as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the state's current voter ID law in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.

If upheld, the Crawford case is pivotal for the future of voting rights as Indiana's strict photo ID requirement may serve as a legislative model for other states, even though there is no evidence of voter fraud in the state itself. Most importantly, the decision could impede turnout in this presidential election as 21 millions Americans - including low income, minority and elderly voters - do not have proper ID.

Brennan Center for Justice's Justin Levitt phrased it best in a statement for Wednesday's Senate hearing,:"While in-person impersonation fraud is not a problem of any significance, there are real and pressing concerns still confronting the ability of the electorate to vote and have their votes counted. We urge Congress to address these challenges, to ensure that all eligible citizens are able to exercise the franchise effectively."


Quick Links:

Contact:

Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) [Chair]
Robert F. Bennett (R-UT) [Ranking Member]

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Reports:

Hearing: "In Person Voter Fraud: Myth and Trigger for Disenfranchisement?." Senate committee on Rules and Administration. March 12, 2008.

"Analysis of Alleged Fraud in Briefs Supporting Crawford Respondents." Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Dec. 2007.

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