Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
From the technological glitches to voter intimidation reports to well-hyped charges of "voter fraud," American voters are well aware of problems in our system of casting and counting ballots. However, a range of these problems are often confused and conflated with "voter fraud" in media stories, trumped-up accusations, and, most insidiously, in voter suppression attempts. The truth of "voter fraud" is much simpler than many people would have us believe. This proves to be an inconvenient reality for those individuals engaged in systematic attempts to disenfranchise specific voting populations, much like the efforts that have been laid bare at the Department of Justice over the past eight months.
"Voter fraud, to the extent it exists at all, involves real people casting ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote," wrote James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice in this Politico opinion piece. "As a practical matter, voter fraud involves extraordinary criminal risk, including prison and fines, for almost zero personal gain."
Although there is only one qualifier for voter fraud, a number of election administration problems are thrown under the "voter fraud" umbrella to stir up trouble, intimidate voters and justify disenfranchising laws, such as voter identification requirements. Incomplete voter registration applications and shoddy voter caging attempts, among other issues, cause applications to be rejected or candidates to be accused of fraud when actual "voter fraud" is not the issue.
In 2004, "voter fraud" was deemed a non-issue by fired U.S. Attorney John McKay, which he said cost him his job. That year, a close Washington gubernatorial race brought strong accusations of voter fraud, which McKay dismissed on lack of evidence, Sample wrote. Recently, McKay spoke out, claiming the U.S. Inspector General may recommend criminal prosecutions of Gonzales in the coming weeks.
Voter caging operations or voter challenges based on returned mailings are often billed as evidence of massive voter fraud, although the voter caging lists are, in fact, only evidence of returned mailings. Project Vote found that media campaigns immediately before elections played a key role in voter caging efforts by calling press conferences to announce the mass challenges. Frequently, the pre-election media campaigns alleging voter fraud were as vigorously carried out as the challenges themselves. Read more on voter caging in this Project Vote report.
Another facet of the effort to improve election administration and stop "voter fraud" is focused on voter lists, through the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA requires states to create centralized, statewide databases of registered voters, a requirement that has created a transitional "mess," Sample wrote.
The transition involves removing existing, but no longer active voters (defined differently from state to state) from the voting rolls while blocking new, but ineligible voters from the rolls entirely. However, there are major challenges in the list maintenance procedures that can potentially deny or remove legitimate voters. Blocking new, but ineligible voters by matching their voter registration data with existing government lists (e.g. state motor vehicle and Social Security Administration databases) is risky because of problems inherent in the data matching process. "[T]ypographical errors, maiden names for the married, married names for the divorced, transposed fields, improperly hyphenated compound names" and a host of other discrepancies between any two given databases can lead to eligible voters being denied their right to vote.
Sample points out, "The Social Security Administration admits that 46.2 percent of submitted voter registration records fail to match its records."
Further, the muddy regulations of list maintenance have been used in "anti-democratic schemes" in recent elections, Sample wrote, citing Florida's purge list of 47,000 voters in 2004, with several thousand being legitimate voters and an overwhelming number being African American.
"With voter fraud again as an ostensible justification, Florida was also one of several states along with Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Maryland and Georgia at the center of another trend, stopping registration before it starts." Sample refers to state laws requiring third-party voter registration groups to follow rigid requirements of voter application submissions that, in the case of Florida, is "so patently absent in the state's own efforts." The strict rules and hefty fines caused the state's League of Women Voters to shut down "numerous voter registration drives" last year a first for the group which had been operating in the state for 67 years.
"Finally, states are passing stringent voter ID requirements that disenfranchise rightful voters, particularly the elderly, the poor and minorities," Sample wrote. "As election scholar Rick Hasen has pointed out, it is not an accident that legislatures have passed or proposed such legislation on party-line votes."
The party division on the issue doesn't stop in Congress. It is part of the Justice Department with Voting Chief John Tanner, who infamously spoke before the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles, acknowledging that the elderly are disproportionately affected by voter ID, but said - in an apparent, jaw-dropping, justification of voter ID laws - that minorities are exempt from such disenfranchisement because "they die first." This week, Tanner apologized for "the 'tone' of his comments" before a House Judiciary subcommittee, but stuck by the data, reported Dan Eggen of the Washington Post Wednesday.
Although national health statistics show that blacks have shorter life expectancies than whites, "lawmakers and some voting experts said other data also show that older minority voters frequently cast ballots at higher rates than their white counterparts," Eggen wrote.
"You engaged in analysis without knowing the numbers," Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said to Tanner. "If you are basing your conclusions on stereotypes rather than facts, then it suggests to some of us that someone else can do this job better than you can."