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Voter ID Laws and Voter Fraud - A Cure Worse Than the Disease

The other day, I received a link to the following video on the National Review:

The YouTube description states, "Democrats like to pretend voter fraud isn't a problem -- but it is. This video proves it." In truth, the video does nothing of the sort. The video itself is merely a series of claims with absolutely no references to back them up, with ominous music playing in the background, and graphics somewhat related to the claims. And the claims themselves don't support the case for voter fraud being a major problem.

Before getting to the actual claims from the video, I'm going to start off with a big picture view of voter fraud, voter ID laws, and how this video misses the mark.

Video Doesn't Actually Demonstrate Voter Fraud to Be a Problem

The big problem is that many of the claims in the video are a kind of bait and switch. They don't show how big of a problem voter fraud is, just how easy it would be to commit the crime (and on a small scale, at that - not the large scale fraud required to influence most elections). That may seem like splitting hairs, but it's not. I'll use an example. With Halloween coming up, the yearly scare about pins & needles & razor blades in candy and apples is going to be brought up again. That would be an extremely easy crime to commit - just shove those things into food. And particularly industrious misanthropes could open & reseal wrappers to disguise their sabotage. But in truth, this is a very rare crime, with basically only 1 case since 1959 where it was a stranger giving out treats to kids (the handful of other times that weren't hoaxes were friends & siblings playing pranks on each other - Snopes). So, even though this would be an extremely easy crime to commit, we don't pass onerous trick or treating regulations to deal with it, because in practice, it's just not a big issue.

When it comes to voter fraud, the Democrats aren't saying it would be impossible to commit, especially on an individual scale. They're saying that the vast majority of reputable studies that have looked into it haven't found evidence of it actually happening very often. So, there's no need to panic and rush laws into place that haven't been thought through, and especially not to put laws into place that cause more harm than they prevent, disenfranchising certain segments of the population.

Here's an article in the New York Times with links to several of the studies looking at how prevalent voter fraud actually is, The Success of the Voter Fraud Myth. And here's an article from NBC News that discusses the issue in some detail, Study Finds No Evidence of Widespread Voter Fraud. All these studies find that fraud, intentionally trying to game the system and not just making mistakes, is very rare - somewhere on the order of hundreds of votes out of the billion votes in all American elections between 2000 and 2014. Even if you grant very generous assumptions and increase the estimate to 10,000 (a couple orders of magnitude greater than what the studies have found), that's less than 0.001% of all votes. Plus, most of the types of fraud that were committed wouldn't have been caught by photo ID, anyway (such as voting in multiple polling locations).

Discriminatory Effects of Existing Voter ID Laws

On the flip side, overly strict voter ID laws have reduced voter turnout by far greater numbers. A study by the Government Accountability Office (Washington Post - Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee dropped 2012 turnout by over 100,000 votes) found that overly strict voter ID laws reduced voter turnout by roughly 2% in 2012 in the two states they studied, Kansas and Tennessee - meaning ~120,000 disenfranchised voters in just those two states in just that one year, compared to the mere hundreds of cases of voter fraud nationwide over more than a decade.

Here's another story from the L.A. Times detailing the results of overly strict voter ID laws, and specifically how they disproportionately affect minorities, The results on voter ID laws are in -- and it's bad news for ethnic and racial minorities. The study found that these laws disproportionately affect latinos, blacks, Asian Americans, and multi-racial Americans, and that "the racial turnout gap doubles or triples in states that enact strict ID laws."

Actual Democratic Position on Voter ID Laws

According to a Gallup poll from last month (Four in Five Americans Support Voter ID Laws, Early Voting), a majority of Democrats, 63%, actually do favor a Photo ID requirement. So it's not voter ID laws per se that Democrats are opposed to, but the way many Republicans have tried to use unfair implementations of those laws to disenfranchise voters more likely to vote Democratic, or to sway elections in favor of Republican candidates. (Although a substantial minority of Democrats are opposed to voter ID laws in general because of the potential for voter disenfranchisement.)

Examples of Political Motivations from Republican Politicians & Leadership

I mentioned the actual stats up above, but here's an article from the New York Times discussing leaked documents and unguarded moments where certain members of Republican leadership have admitted/explained their less honorable motivations behind many of these laws, Some Republicans Acknowledge Leveraging Voter ID Laws for Political Gain.

Here's perhaps the most explicit and damning admission from the article, from Todd Allbaugh, a former staff aide to a Republican state legislator:

I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters. Think about that for a minute. Elected officials planning and happy to help deny a fellow American's constitutional right to vote in order to increase their own chances to hang onto power.

Here's a striking example from Alabama. After putting their voter ID laws in place, they went and shut down over 30 of their DMV offices, mostly in poor or predominantly black areas, making it even harder for those people to get photo IDs. Thankfully, there was enough outcry and political pressure that the offices were re-opened, but it certainly seems to indicate their motivations (though of course, the governor and others don't admit to deliberate disenfranchisement, and have claimed budgetary reasons for the closures). Here's a ThinkProgress article on the original closings, After Alabama Enforces Voter ID, Shuts Down DMVs In Black Communities, Lawmaker Wants Investigation, and a Governing.com article article on the reopenings, Alabama Will Reopen Closed DMV Offices in Black Counties.

Here's a particularly damning example from North Carolina, as explained in this article from the Washington Post, The 'smoking gun' proving North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise black voters. I'm just going to quote directly from the article:

The federal court in Richmond found that the primary purpose of North Carolina's wasn't to stop voter fraud, but rather to disenfranchise minority voters. The judges found that the provisions "target African Americans with almost surgical precision."

In particular, the court found that North Carolina lawmakers requested data on racial differences in voting behaviors in the state. "This data showed that African Americans disproportionately lacked the most common kind of photo ID, those issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)," the judges wrote.

So the legislators made it so that the only acceptable forms of voter identification were the ones disproportionately used by white people. "With race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans," the judges wrote. "The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess." [emphasis mine]

And from later in the article:

Most strikingly, the judges point to a "smoking gun" in North Carolina's justification for the law, proving discriminatory intent. The state argued in court that "counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black" and "disproportionately Democratic," and said it did away with Sunday voting as a result.

"Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State's very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race -- specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise," the judges write in their decision.

And for the last passage from that article I'm going to quote:

"Faced with this record," the federal court concludes, "we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent."

Here's a Washington Post article, focused on Texas specifically (since I live here), Getting a photo ID so you can vote is easy. Unless you're poor, black, Latino or elderly. It mentions the oft-cited fact that the Texas voter ID law allowed concealed carry permits as a valid form of ID, but not state issued university IDs. That reeks of political bias - allowing a form of ID for a group more likely to be conservative while not allowing an equally valid form of ID for a group more likely to be liberal. That's exactly the type of reason why Democrats are so suspicious of Republican sponsored voter ID laws. The article also has a few real-life examples of people trying to get the state-issued IDs, and the onerous hassles some of them have had to go through.

And as one last example, here's an article from MSNBC, Former Fla. Republican chair: GOP discussed reducing black turnout; voter fraud is just a 'marketing tool'. Jim Greer, former chair of the Florida Republican party, stated, "Never one time did we have any discussions where voter fraud was a real issue," and that the real reasons for their voter ID laws were "to make sure that what happened in 2008, when President Obama brought out the college-age voters, the minority voters, never happened again". He also said, "They talked about making voter registration much more difficult for third party organizations like the League of Women Voters." There's more, but that's enough to show the Florida Republicans leadership's true motivation.


So, just to sum up - studies don't find voter fraud to be a big issue, and the majority of the few cases that do occur wouldn't be stopped by voter ID laws. Leaked documents, unguarded statements, and other examples make it clear that many Republican politicians intentionally mean to disenfranchise certain voters with these laws. And the measured effect is that these Republican led voter ID laws have reduced voter turnout, especially among minorities and others more likely to vote Democratic, with the reduced turnout dwarfing the number of fraud cases they were meant to stop. As one judge in Wisconsin put it, the "strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease." Finally, a majority of Democrats are in favor of voter ID laws and other reforms to guarantee election integrity, as long as they're implemented properly and fairly, and not used as a tool to disenfranchise voters and try to swing elections in favor of the Republicans.


Fraudulent Claims of Fraud

As one last note before getting to the video's specific claims, I have seen a few allegations of voter fraud popping up on the Internet. They almost always turn out to be hoaxes. Here are a couple examples from the last few weeks:

Now, I'm sure a handful of legitimate examples will turn up, as they have in the past. But they'll almost surely be isolated, small scale crimes, not anything on a scale necessary to influence elections, and certainly not as bad as the harm caused by overly strict voter ID laws.


Detailed Examination of Video Claims

With all that background information above, for anyone interested, I'll now go through the actual claims from the video.

Voter fraud is a huge problem.
Democrats pretend it doesn't exist
They vehemently oppose requiring ID at polling stations

Covered above - Voter fraud is not a well documented problem, so Democrats are just following the evidence, not pretending. Further, the majority of Democrats do favor ID. They're just wary of the details of how Republicans try to implement it.

But undercover agents were able to vote as dead people
Filmmaker James O'Keefe obtained former attorney general Eric Holder's ballot
He also claimed to be Eminem
...and the mayor of Detroit
A 24-year undercover agent gave the name of someone who had died in 2012 at age 87
All of them were going to be allowed to vote

Covered above - These videos don't show how often voter fraud occurs, only how easy it is to commit on a small scale, and not even the large scale that would be required to sway all but the tightest elections.

A Pew survey says 1 of 8 voter registrations is inaccurate
2.8 million people are registered in 2 or more states
1.8 million registered voters are dead

I assume they're referring to this study, Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America's Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade. Again, these aren't evidence of fraud, but they are evidence that the voter registration system should be improved. And that Pew study suggested several means of doing so (none of which, by the way, included voter ID).

6.4% of non-citizens voted in 2008

This is not an actual measurement, but an estimate from a questionable study, addressed in more detail here: Washington Post blog - Methodological challenges affect study of non-citizens' voting. Basically, it was a survey with a lot of questionable assumptions and methodologies, that extrapolated the 6.4% number from the basis of those questionable assumptions combined with a very small sample size. And as noted by at least one researcher who studies this, Rick Hasen, it's a much higher estimate than other studies that have looked at the same issue (Election Law Blog). And finally, most non-citizens actually do have drivers licenses, so checking ID wouldn't have stopped them from voting, anyway.

Undercover agents claimed names of dead, jailed or former residents at 63 polling places -- and got ballots

Same issues as above - not evidence that fraud is happening on a large scale.

I also have to mention that given the history of these kinds of undercover right wing videos I've seen in the past, such as O'Keefe's ACORN video and the more recent Planned Parenthood video, which both used misleading editing to completely misrepresent what was actually going on, you have to have an extra dose of skepticism when viewing them. For example, in the few undercover voting videos I did watch, some of them did appear as if the 'agent' was going to get a normal ballot to vote with, but in others, it seemed pretty clear that they were going to get a provisional ballot - that the election officials recognized that something was out of the ordinary with the agents, and so were only giving them a provisional ballot which would be reviewed later to see if they were eligible to vote or not.

In 2008, illegal felon voters appear to have swung the outcome of a critical Senate election

Since they're not very specific and don't give any references, I can only assume they mean Al Franken's election to the Senate, since there is some controversy on that. Here's an article from Alternet dealing with the claim, GOP Voter Fraud Hucksters Latest Lie: Felons Made Franken U.S. Senator. Needless to say, illegal felons did not swing the election in Franken's favor. The biggest issue was ex-felons voting before they'd had their voting rights restored, usually out of ignorance of the process, when most of them would have been eligible to vote if they'd filed the proper paper work. In other words, it was more of a paperwork issue than people intentionally trying to cheat the system. Additionally, the election was decided by 312 votes, while the combined number of accused & convicted voter fraud cases is only 243 (so actual convictions will be lower than that - probably far lower given the other studies on fraud referenced above) - not enough to sway the election even if they all voted as a bloc in favor of Franken, which is a pretty big assumption in itself. And to be clear, all but one of those fraud accusations were ex-felons who hadn't filed the appropriate paperwork - not, to quote the alternet article, "double voting, underage voting, voter impersonation, coercion of elderly or disabled voters, or non-citizen voting". And just like with several of the other examples discussed, many of those ex-felons had drivers licenses, so voter ID wouldn't have stopped them from voting, anyway.

It's time to require ID and more vigilance at all polling locations

Again, this general conclusion isn't opposed by most Democrats. It's the details of implementing the laws in such a way as to try to disenfranchise voters or sway elections to Republicans that most Democrats are opposed to. The laws should not cause more harm than they prevent.

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