The Myth of Voter Fraud

The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog recently posted an excellent article about the disturbing trend towards voter identification laws that place more obstacles between citizens and their civic duty. The post notes that, despite state legislatures’ new-found appetite for compelling citizens to provide government-issued identification at the polls, there is really little to no evidence that widespread voter fraud is even a problem. To the contrary, there is much evidence to say that it just does not occur, including the vigorous investigation of potential voter fraud by President Bush’s Justice Department in the 2000s, which turned up extremely few cases.

Still, the Pennsylvania General Assembly (along with many other legislatures) is moving forward with a bill (tagged at $11 (eleven) million) that professes to safeguard our democracy by preventing a non-existent problem.

The fact that voter fraud is not widespread may come as a surprise to some people. Indeed, some polls show that around half of Americans think that voter fraud occurs fairly regularly (and as an interesting aside, the existence of voter identification laws doesn’t even seem to have any impact on these perceptions — that is, voter ID laws don’t even have the psychological effect of increasing confidence in election safety).

People seem to think voter fraud is extremely pervasive, and many point to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as proof of a grand conspiracy. The problem with this is that the ACORN case is one not of voter impersonation (which is the only type of fraud that Voter ID bills would prevent), but of voter registration fraud. The difference is key.

Though people often lump them together in their minds, the two are actually quite different. For voter impersonation to occur, people would actually need to show up at their polling place and fraudulently try to vote. Voter registration fraud, on the other hand, occurs when someone submits a fraudulent voter registration form. Keep in mind that these forms are then reviewed by the state, and also that registration figures don’t determine elections, votes do.

While it is fairly easy for a person to simply fill out a registration paper with false information, it would be incredibly difficult for them orchestrate widespread voter fraud. Current law already demands voters show identification the first time they vote at their polling place.

So, in order for Joe Fake to actually do this, he would need to fill out a fake registration. That registration would need to get the ok. Then Joe Fake would have to show up on election day with valid identification (since this is his first time voting). Then Joe Fake goes and casts 1 vote. But Joe Fake knows 1 vote won’t swing the election, so he travels to another polling place, where he hopes not to be recognized by anyone who might know he doesn’t live in this area. He has a different fake registration for here, and different fake identification that must again pass the poll workers.

This process has to occur thousands upon thousands of times, so Joe Fake better have a lot of time on his hands and a lot of fake identification for his various personas, and he’d better be good at persuasion because it’ll take everyone he knows voting as many times as they can all day at different polling places, with none of them getting caught or spilling the beans.

With all the time and effort Joe and his cohort have put into this effort, they’ve probably thought through the harsh penalties and fines they’ll be facing if they get caught. Voter fraud in a federal election could land them in prison for five years and with a $10,000 fine — and that’s on top of however the state penalizes them. So they must have come to the conclusion that they value trying to change the outcome so much (already a slim chance they will), that it is worth taking on these high risks.

No sane person would take such extraordinarily high risks for such a small chance of success, let alone be able to convince the numbers of people necessary to fraudulently swing an election to do likewise (with no one ever saying a word). Of course, not everyone is sane. I suppose it is lucky for us, then, that enforcing existing law would keep our elections both accessible and safe.

And we wouldn’t have to spend a couple million extra dollars to do it.


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