August 13, 2012

OSTENSIBLE JUSTIFICATION for a spate of Republican-sponsored voter ID laws — which would require voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls — has been the threat of voter fraud, specifically, in-person voter impersonation. It has seemed likely, given the absence of evidence of such crimes, that the threat was overstated. Now we know for sure: Such fraud virtually never takes place.

Listening to Republican advocates of voter ID laws, you’d think that impersonations at the polls are the biggest danger to democracy since the Chicago political machine allegedly registered thousands of dead people to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. The Republican National Lawyers Association — devoted to promoting “open, fair and honest elections” — frequently cites the figure of 375 cases of voter impersonation fraud.

But News21, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, investigated each of those cases and found that not one showed evidence of impersonation fraud. News21 reporters also reached out to election personnel in all 50 states, requesting information on every single reported case of alleged fraud at the polls. The organization’s analysis of 2,068 cases found only 10 related to impersonation. Using those figures, the frequency of poll impersonation is about one in 15 million.

A partisan motivation behind the voter ID laws has been evident from the start. People without IDs are more likely to be poor and in a minority, groups that vote disproportionately for Democrats. If lawmakers were serious about maintaining the integrity of the vote without depressing minority voting, they would at least include provisions in their legislation to help voters get IDs.

Although the News21 study doesn’t reveal evidence of impersonation in voting booths, it does show that other types of voter fraud — especially in voter registration and manipulating absentee ballots — are alive and well. The data contain 400 cases of registration fraud and 491 cases of alleged absentee ballot abuse.

If legislators in Texas, Pennsylvania or the seven other states with similar laws on the books genuinely cared about combating voter fraud, they’d do well to police the areas where there still is evidence of scamming. Any legislation against “voter fraud” should attack fraud, not voters.