By Rebecca Wakefield
At the third hearing on voter suppression in as many weeks, members of Congress again sparred over the prevalence of fraudulent voting. This time, it was members of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration at hearing on In Person Voter Fraud: Myth and Trigger for Disenfranchisement?, called at the insistence of Senator Chuck Schumer.
The starkly partisan contrast between those who believe voter fraud is the worst affliction on the country's electoral system and those who believe the greater threat is voter disenfranchisement could not have been clearer. The Democrats on the committee called several witnesses to debunk the myth, while Republicans brought in friendly testimony from true believers.
The Department of Justice, arguably the arbiter of the actual extent of any fraud, stayed out of the fray altogether by refusing to send a witness to testify.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein of California opened the hearing with a pertinent question aimed at the heart of the seemingly endless debate. Are people showing up at the polls to impersonate registered voters? This persistent idea is part of the rational for laws requiring photo IDs at the polls.
"I think getting to the bottom of this is important because, in essence, this is the only type of fraud that would be prevented by a photo-ID requirement," she said, adding that the IDs don't address other types of voter fraud, such as absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, fraudulent registration or ballot tampering.
Indiana's enactment of a photo-ID law is being challenged in the Supreme Court, but similar laws are poised for passage in several states, which could retard voter turnout in November's election. By some estimates, as many as 21 million adult citizens, generally minorities, the poor, disabled, and the elderly, do not routinely use photo IDs in their daily lives.
Feinstein's comments were heartily endorsed and added to by Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, among others. Meanwhile Senators Robert Bennett of Utah and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia backed a myth-making contingent behind Sen. Chris Bond of Missouri. Bond argued that "voter fraud is alive and well in America". He pointed to what he said was the St. Louis voter registration card for an English spaniel by the name of Ritzy.
"One person a photo ID requirement most certainly would catch is this person here," he quipped. He did not claim, however, that anyone tried to use Ritzy's voter registration to actually vote.
Bond's assertions were undercut by the testimony of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who stated that "we have found no documented instances of in-person voter fraud in Missouri" despite the best efforts of Bond, Ritzy, and others to perpetuate the notion that the problem is widespread. "Like the myth of Bigfoot, the more folks hear about it, the more they might think it is true," she said. "Unfortunately, this can hinder voter confidence and discourage participation."
Carnahan said that the Missouri legislature's 2006 passage of a photo ID requirement for voting was struck down by that state's Supreme Court because the law was more restrictive that the federal requirements of the Help America Vote Act and could have disenfranchised an estimated 240,000 Missouri voters without government-issued photo identification.
Senator Chambliss countered with witness Robert Simms, Georgia's Deputy Secretary of State, who said in-person voter fraud was a big problem in Georgia until the passage of a photo ID requirement. He cited an eight-year old newspaper article that found some 5000 votes cast in the names of dead people in the state in the previous 20 years.
Justin Levitt, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, also brought up the 2008 Georgia primary, but argued that since "296 voters arriving without acceptable photo identification reportedly cast ballots that were not counted," the unacceptable effects of the ID law are hardly a myth. He further cited extensive research that indicates that while incidents of voter impersonation at the polls do exist, they are "strikingly rare" and overall less worrisome than other types of fraud and much more common disenfranchisement.
Feinstein noted that she had invited William Welch, chief of DOJ's Public Integrity Section, to help quantify the problem of voter fraud at the polls, but the department "refused to allow him to testify," begging off with a weak promise to send some lesser bureaucrat to squirm under the hot lights at a later time.
Feinstein had also wanted to hear from Welch in the context of DOJ's Bush administration initiative to aggressively pursue investigation and prosecution of voter fraud. "It is my understanding that DOJ failed to complete any Federal prosecutions for impersonation voter fraud," she said.