Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt recently released a report on “voting irregularities” that Voter ID advocates have been touting as irrefutable evidence of rampant voter fraud in Pennsylvania. If true, this would be quite a bombshell, shoring up the case for the Voter ID law and directing contradicting strong evidence that shows voter impersonation fraud just does not occur.
So is it true?
Well, let’s take a look at how the report was produced and what it contains. Schmidt produced the report after non-scientifically examining 14 voting divisions in Philadelphia during the 2012 primary election. By “non-scientifically,” I mean that these divisions were not chosen at random, but were specifically selected because of discrepancies between city and state data.
You see, Pennsylvania keeps election records at both the state and county levels. Your county records that you showed up to vote at your local polling place. After the election, another list is compiled for the state. But there were a lot of people who voted, and thus a lot of room for error.
Accordingly, it is not uncommon for some people to be missed. This does not change the outcome of the election — the voting booths still recorded the proper amount — but it can cause a discrepancy between county and state records.
Schmidt’s report looked specifically at the divisions that had the largest discrepancies between county and state records, and discusses seven types of voting irregularities:
- Voting by non-registered individuals
- Voting by individuals in the incorrect party’s primary
- Divisions with more votes than voters
- Voting by individuals in the incorrect legislative district
- Individuals voting more than once
- Voter impersonation
- Voting by non-U.S. citizens
The first thing to notice about this list in the context of the Voter ID debate is that very few of them actually deal with voter impersonation fraud. This specific kind of fraud — which is the only type of voter fraud the Voter ID law would actually prevent — occurs when someone shows up at the poll and says they are someone that they are not in order to receive an additional, illegal vote.
The simple fact is that Voter ID would not prevent the vast majority of irregularities Schmidt’s report identifies. In fact, six of the seven types on this list would not be affected at all by Voter ID. That’s because most of these deal with what poll workers and Election Board officials do and how they do it. Even the single alleged case of a woman double-voting would not have been prevented by Voter ID, because in that instance the woman was who she said she was.
There is only one kind of voting irregularity on this list that Voter ID would actually prevent: voter impersonation fraud.
None of this is a reflection upon Schmidt’s report but, rather, how Voter ID supporters have used it to advocate for the new law. Though the report does not seek to quantify voter impersonation fraud (and only contains one example), it has nevertheless been hailed by the Voter ID bill’s sponsor, PA State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, as “[confirming] what leading Democrat opponents of voter photo ID and those in the mainstream media have been denying all along.”
I will discuss that instance of voter impersonation Schmidt identifies — the infamous “Joe Cheeseboro case” — but first, let us examine another claim often put forward by the Voter ID’s proponents.
Some of the law’s supporters contend that Voter ID will indeed stop widespread illegal voting by non-citizens. There are two responses to this: that there is little evidence that non-citizen voting is widespread, and that even if it were, this would not stop it.
To be clear, there are two basic types of non-citizens: legal and illegal. The arguments surrounding Voter ID have generally focused on the latter, probably because it plays into pre-existing fears of illegal immigrants as ‘law-breakers.’ The irony is that illegal immigrants are actually less likely to break the law. Indeed, the immigrant population as a whole are less likely to commit crimes, but especially undocumented ones. The reason is simple: illegal immigrants have to worry about being discovered and deported. Keeping out of trouble helps ensure they can remain in the country.
With that in mind, does it make sense that an illegal immigrant would want to risk deportation in exchange for one additional vote in an election that will be decided by hundreds of thousands? A quick look at the potential costs and benefits would suggest not.
Schmidt’s report does highlight an interesting aspect of non-citizen voting, though. Namely, that in the current system, election officials only discover if a non-citizen has voted after they have applied for citizenship. Once they apply, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) contacts the Board of Elections to determine if the individual has ever registered to vote. In the months between January 2012 and when the report came out in July, Schmidt’s office has been notified of 19 non-citizens that registered to vote. Of those, seven voted at least once in the last decade.
Again, the report does not seek to measure how often such fraud occurs, but other evidence suggests it is not at the epidemic levels Voter ID supporters have claimed. For instance, despite a vigorous campaign by the Bush Justice Department to uncover voter fraud, there were only 14 instances in which non-citizens were found to have voted illegally between 2002 and 2005.
Here’s the kicker: Voter ID would not have necessarily prevented these non-citizens from casting their ballots. After all, Voter ID does not require poll workers to check citizenship papers, only photo identification. And it is well within a legal non-citizen’s rights to get a driver’s license or other photo ID.
Remember, the seven instances in the Schmidt report were not cases of people showing up at the polls, saying they were someone they were not, and gaining one additional fraudulent vote. They were cases in which a person who was not legally allowed to vote had registered, shown up to the polls, demonstrated they were who they said they were, and then voted. Voter ID would not stop this.
As an interesting historical aside, numerous states (Pennsylvania included) originally allowed non-citizen voting in state elections. Nationalistic sentiment during World War I largely reversed these policies in the states and localities in which they remained, and in 1926 Arkansas became the last state to do away with it. However, even today various localities retain the authority to grant non-citizens a vote in local elections, and some continue to do so. Outside the United States, there are at least 22 countries in which non-citizens have some voting rights.
On the flip side of the argument, being an American citizen has not (and in some cases, still does not) always imply voting rights. Obviously, voting rights are subject to age restrictions, but they were also once subject to gender and race restrictions as well, despite citizenship status. Today, they are subject to one’s criminal record.
None of this is to say that illegal voting is permissible (it is not), nor is it to say that non-citizen voting is a preferable policy (it is not clear to me that it is). This is only to say that the citizenship-voting rights link is much more tenuous than it at first appears to be.
Currently, the first box on a voter registration application asks whether an individual is a citizen of the United States. Beyond that, however, the Election Board may only find out whether a voter is a non-citizen once they are contacted by CIS.
Some states, like Florida, have moved toward a tighter system in which they access a federal database (the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, program) in order to determine an individual’s immigration status, and then compare that to voter rolls. Although voter registration rolls need to be kept up-to-date and accurate, there is some concern that purging voter rolls through comparison with SAVE could accidentally disenfranchise eligible voters. The Brennan Center reports that states’ current voter purging processes are “shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.”
Schmidt himself is described as having reservations about hypothetically using SAVE in Philadelphia, and for good reason. The possibility of tossing eligible voters off the registration rolls is not something that should be taken lightly. Especially when the possible benefits of such a policy are actually fairly small. As described above, available evidence suggests non-citizen voting is fairly rare — something even the Corbett Administration admits.
Obviously steps should be taken to curb it (the Brennan Center has policy suggestions for ways to purge rolls responsibly and transparently), as long as the proper safeguards are in place to ensure that the process is not politicized and legitimate voters are not disenfranchised in the process.
The curious case of Joe Cheeseboro.
There is only one type of voting irregularity in Schmidt’s report that a Voter ID law could actually stop, and that is voter impersonation. Evidence suggests that voter fraud is rare (and that a more usual way to fix elections is changing election law to deter opponents). As with non-citizen voting, the Bush Justice Department vigorously sought out instances of alleged voter fraud, and found little.
Schmidt’s report, though Voter ID supporters have presented it as building a strong case for Voter ID, brings little new to the debate. It only identifies characteristics of voter impersonation fraud through the story of Joseph J. Cheeseborough.
Available evidence suggests Mr. Cheeseborough is the victim of voter impersonation — he is registered at two polling places, and has voted twice in the same election in the past.
It is telling, however, that many Voter ID supporters are still drumming up Mr. Cheeseboro as the damning evidence for pervasive voter fraud. His case proves that voter impersonation fraud has occurred, but not the level of pervasiveness (again, I would point to other studies that say it is rare). Mr. Cheeseboro’s single case, while provocative, is not even a rounding error — it for all intents and purposes does not exist, except on the most excruciatingly technical level.
This is not to make light of potential voter fraud. Obviously, one illegal vote is too many. But it is a foregone conclusion that any democratic voting process will leave some room for error. The question we must answer, as a society, is what safeguards are we willing to enact in order to fulfill the twofold aim of:
- Ensuring the rights of citizens to vote and
- Maintaining the integrity of elections.
Currently, there are strong incentives against voter impersonation. In order to successfully impersonate another voter, you must know that he or she is registered at that poll and has not yet voted and does not intend to vote today. If he or she is a new voter at that polling place, you must bring some form of identification. And you must know that the poll workers, who live in that community, will not know that you are not the voter you are impersonating.
Being caught could mean up to a $10,000 fine and 5 years in prison. On the other hand, getting away with it means one lousy extra vote in an election likely to be decided by hundreds of thousands of votes.
In that context, does it really make sense to spend $11 million to disenfranchise more than 9 percent of Pennsylvanians and more than 18 percent of Philadelphians because one man potentially lied about being Joe Cheeseboro? Or would it make more sense simply to enforce existing election law, and make appropriate changes that take care to disturb legitimate voters as little as possible?
Judge Robin Simpson of the Commonwealth Court will likely decide the answers to these questions on August 13, when he issues his ruling regarding the court case against the Voter ID law. And since PA Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin has recused herself from hearing cases pending the resolution of criminal charges against her, the PA Supreme Court could deliver a tied 3-3 verdict. In that case, Simpson’s decision would stand.
For me, however, it seems fairly clear that the costs of the Voter ID law far outweigh the benefits.