This morning’s must-read (on what is starting out to be the slowest of news days) is from our friend Kevin Drum, who has a piece on the origins of the contemporary furor over “voter fraud” in the latest issue of Mother Jones. In Kevin’s account, much of it can be traced to a less famous 2000 election day nightmare than Florida’s: in Missouri, where charges and counter-charges of voter fraud and voter suppression and the defeat of Sen. John Ashcroft helped fuel a decade of conservative efforts to win the battle over access to the ballot box:
In retrospect, the campaign against voter fraud was long, patient, and strategic. Sen. Kit Bond got the ball rolling in 2002 when he made sure ID requirements were part of HAVA. In 2005, a commission on voting rights headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III gave a bipartisan blessing to photo ID rules. [Missouri Republican operative] Thor Hearne spent the following two years barnstorming the country with dramatic tales of voter fraud. Meanwhile, the Justice Department and the Bush White House browbeat US Attorneys around the country to crack down on voter fraud, even firing a handful (including David Iglesias, then the US Attorney for New Mexico) who apparently weren’t zealous enough. And then, finally, the 2010 election brought new GOP majorities to 11 states—and with them a brand new wave of restrictive voting laws.
All this happened, Kevin notes, as study after study concluded that actual voter fraud was exceedingly rare:
That’s not to say that there’s none at all. In a country of 300 million you’ll find a bit of almost anything. But multiple studies taking different approaches have all come to the same conclusion: The rate of voter fraud in American elections is close to zero.
In her 2010 book, The Myth of Voter Fraud, Lorraine Minnite tracked down every single case brought by the Justice Department between 1996 and 2005 and found that the number of defendants had increased by roughly 1,000 percent under Ashcroft. But that only represents an increase from about six defendants per year to 60, and only a fraction of those were ever convicted of anything. A New York Times investigation in 2007 concluded that only 86 people had been convicted of voter fraud during the previous five years. Many of those appear to have simply made mistakes on registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, and more than 30 of the rest were penny-ante vote-buying schemes in local races for judge or sheriff. The investigation found virtually no evidence of any organized efforts to skew elections at the federal level.
The bottom line is that during George W. Bush’s administration Republicans were in a position to carry out a truly obsessive search for voter fraud and found remarkably little. But the myth remains, as do the laws it inspired.
Kevin does indicate that Democratic fears of a huge impact from voter ID laws may be exaggerated based on the initial evidence. But it could sure matter in close races, and in any event, the nakedly racial motivation of these laws should be offensive to anyone familiar with the struggle for voting rights.
As Kevin concludes:
Electoral politics has always been a dirty game, but in recent decades most of us felt that there was, at least, a consensus that systematic, national-level efforts to discourage minority voting were at last beyond the pale. But maybe we were just kidding ourselves.