“The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud. It is being used to persuade the public that deceitful and criminal voters are manipulating the electoral system… The exaggerated fear of voter fraud has a long history of scuttling efforts to make voting easier and more inclusive, especially for marginalised groups in American society.” – Lorraine Minnite, The Politics of Voter Fraud, 2007
San Pedro, CA – Last week, thousands of people participated in a re-enactment of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, which was directly responsible for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The recent march culminated with a rally at the state capitol.
“We didn’t come to commemorate what happened 47 years ago. We came to continue what happened 47 years ago,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network was a principal organiser of the march. Martin Luther King III told the crowd his father would have opposed voter photo-ID laws being passed or considered in many states. “I think my father would be greatly disappointed in our nation,” he said.
|Inside Story: Are US minorities being denied voting rights?|
Republicans allege that in-person voter fraud is on the up and up. Yet there’s simply no evidence – or plausible motive – for suspecting that individual voters pose a threat to our democracy. In fact, many of these new measures contribute to the further disenfranchisement of minority groups, while leaving the door open to the potential abuse of electronic vote counts.
According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice last October, Voting Law Changes in 2011, 34 states had introduced photo ID bills, seven of which had been passed by that time. Five more were passed, but vetoed by state governors. More than 21 million citizens nationwide – around seven per cent of US citizens – do not have such ID. At least 12 states introduced proof of citizenship laws, requiring would-be voters to produce a birth certificate in order to register or vote. Previously, only two states had passed such laws. Before 2006, none had.
Furthermore, at least 13 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration mobilisation efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities. This last group of bills have no conceivable relationship to voter fraud. Overall, the report found that these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. The laws already passed then could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012, and involve states with 171 electoral college votes, 63 per cent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
All manner of rationales and practices were used to prevent blacks from registering and voting – especially in the South – before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Other minorities were also affected, along with poor whites. Indeed, the roll-back of voting rights characterised an entire era of US history – from roughly 1850 to 1920 – as described by Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar in his 2000 book, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. After 1920, voting rights remained restricted until the Civil Rights era. Rationales of efficiency, fraud prevention, and “protecting democracy” were commonplace in the rollback of voting rights during that earlier era, but the ulterior motives are impossible to miss from a distance of 100 years or more. However, they’re not that much harder to see today.
First of all, there’s simply no proof that any voter fraud problem exists. Available statistics show that voter fraud is extremely rare – rarer than being struck by lightning. On the federal level, as Lorraine Minnite noted in The Politics of Voter Fraud, government records show that only 24 people were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, illegal voting between 2002 and 2005, an average of eight people a year. This was under a very aggressive enforcement regime during the Bush administration. State level evidence is similarly minimal.
Second, there have been efforts at the highest level to artificially drive up voter fraud statistics and to illegally bring prosecutions in a manner to influence elections – clear indications of a propaganda effort intended to deceive. These efforts, under the Bush administration, were directly responsible for the most egregious examples of politically motivated firings in the US Attorneys scandal.
Third, ID requirements in some states are clearly crafted to favour Republican demographics over Democratic ones. In Texas, for example, concealed handgun licenses can be used as voter ID, but student IDs cannot. Other states exclude or limit student IDs as well. The Brennan Center study cited above specifically identified Democratic-leaning groups as being most affected.
Fourth, voter ID laws have also been accompanied by other provisions that tend to suppress the vote, such as roll-backs in early voting and restrictions on voter registration. In Florida, the combination of high fines and short deadlines for turning in new voter registrations created such a punitive environment that the League of Women Voters has ceased its long-standing voter-registration program, which had run for 70 years. A high-school teacher in New Smyrna Beach is facing massive fines, running into the thousands of dollars, for helping her students register to vote.
Fifth, the Republican Party has generally not required photo IDs for its own party primaries and caucuses – which, by the way, have been filled with chaos and uncertainty over outcomes. If photo IDs are so desperately necessary for election integrity in general elections, why aren’t they needed for GOP primaries?
Sixth, there are other election security problems that Republicans have not just simply ignored over the past decade or more, they’ve actually made them worse – which they would not do if their concerns about electoral integrity were pure. Most notable is the problem of vote tabulation that emerged as one of the most profound problems since the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The “solution” that’s been almost universally pushed since then is the adoption of private, proprietary computerised voting systems which lack the capacity to be double-checked in case of questionable results – thus substantially reducing the trustworthiness of election results.
Seventh, if there were no ulterior motives, then Republicans would be eager to work with Democrats to develop solutions that addressed the concerns of all parties – such as providing free picture IDs for those who can’t afford them, and doing aggressive outreach to make such ID readily available, at the very least.
Eighth, if Republican motives were pure, there would be no pattern of repeated misinformation, disinformation and bad-faith arguments used to push the voter fraud myth, which seemingly remain impervious to any empirically based refutation – much like the deep-seated birther beliefs that I’ve written about before.
The past as prologue
Perhaps more important than all of the above is the decades-long history of organised Republican voter-suppression efforts, dating back more than 50 years. The earliest well-known example of this took place in Arizona in the late 1950s and early 1960s, targeting both blacks and Latinos. We know about this because former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was personally involved in this effort, and testimony came out during his confirmation hearings. This suppression programme was taken nationwide with “Project Eagle Eye” in the 1964 Goldwater campaign, and the GOP has engaged in successor programmes ever since.
The key strategy was a process known as “caging”, which involves sending out non-forwardable mass mailings, and then compiling challenge lists of potential voters to question from the returned mail. Another variation, called “virtual caging” involves comparing voter rolls to other lists to compile challenge lists. Because these strategies have been used to target mostly minority voters, they appear on their face to violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and a 1980s federal civil suit against the Republican National Committee resulted in a settlement forbidding the RNC to engage in caging – although other GOP groups have taken up the practice since then.
This history is hardly obscure. It’s been documented in studies such as “Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters [PDF]”, a report authored by Teresa James, JD, for Project Vote in 2007, and “Vote Caging as a Republican Ballot Security Technique“, by Chandler Davidson, Tanya Dunlap, Gale Kenny, and Benjamin Wise, published in the William Mitchell Law Review in 2008.
Where have all the Democrats gone?
From all of the above, you might think that my point is the perfidy of Republicans. And, of course, the Republican Party has much to answer for, quite apart from the attitudes of millions of individual Republicans. But what I find most striking, like Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”, is the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark, which is to say, the Democrats. Republicans have been fighting to suppress minority voting for more than 50 years. In the United States today, that ought to count as a moral outrage, but for some reason, Democrats don’t do moral outrage. They seem to think that Republicans have a patent on it: a patent they use primarily on made up things, like the “war on religion” or Obama’s alien religion and birth.
The Selma-to-Montgomery march was a hopeful sign that something is being done to fight back against this massive effort to disenfranchise millions of US citizens. Recent legal actions have protected hundreds of thousands of voters in Texas and Wisconsin. But we’re still missing the national outrage that such attacks on democracy so richly deserve.
One problem is that Obama loves to babble on about how “these aren’t Democratic values or Republican values … they’re American values”. Obama said this in Kansas early last December, referring to his belief that “this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules”. But when it comes to voting rights, the record of the past half century is clear: the Republican Party doesn’t believe any of that – even though millions of individual Republicans obviously do. They should be outraged, too – perhaps even more than anyone else, because such anti-American actions are being undertaken in their name.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg