The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The disconnect between voter ID laws and voter fraud

A Milwaukee early voter in 2010. (Morry Gash/AP)

Almost no one shows up at the polls pretending to be someone else in an effort to throw an election. Almost no one acts as a poll worker on Election Day to try to cast illegal votes for a candidate. And almost no general election race in recent history has been close enough to have been thrown by the largest example of in-person voter fraud on record.

That said, there have been examples of fraud, including fraud perpetrated through the use of absentee ballots severe enough to force new elections at the state level. But the slew of new laws passed over the past few years meant to address voter fraud have overwhelmingly focused on the virtually non-existent/unproven type of voter fraud, and not the still-not-common-but-not-non-existent abuse of absentee voting.

In August, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola University Law School, detailed for Wonkblog 31 instances of documented, in-person voter fraud that would have been prevented by stricter rules around identification at the polling place. The most severe instance Levitt outlined involved as many as 24 voters in Brooklyn who tried to vote under assumed names.

There are almost no elections in which 24 votes makes a significant difference, particularly at the federal level. The graph below compares the vote total and the margin of victory for every race with less than a million votes in general elections since 2006.

Most elections, understandably, have margins of victory well into the thousands. So here are all of the House races with a margin of victory under 20,000 since 2006. The five solid-colored dots are those in which the margin of victory was 500 or less. No race was within a 24-vote margin.

Senate races generally have a much larger total vote count. There were nine Senate races in that time period that had a margin of under 20,000 votes, including one — the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota — that was settled by about 300 votes. It's marked in blue on the graph, and we'll come back to it.

Despite how rarely in-person fraud could determine an election, even if it were common, Republican politicians and conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have put an emphasis on new voter restrictions. After the Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's law late last week, Gov. Scott Walker (R) defended the law by saying, in essence, that its effect on outcomes didn't matter. "It doesn’t matter if there’s one, 100 or 1,000," he said during a gubernatorial debate. "Amongst us, who would be that one person who would like to have our vote canceled out by a vote that was cast illegally?"

Last week, we reported on a Government Accountability Office report indicating that some 100,000 fewer people voted in Kansas and Tennessee due to the introduction of voter ID laws in those states. The decline was weighted more heavily toward younger voters and black voters — or, to be clear, more-Democratic voters (the kind Democrats accuse the laws of targeting). In an editorial Monday, the New York Times attacked the "big lie" central to voting restrictions, that "there is virtually no in-person voter fraud; the purpose of these laws is to suppress voting."

Levitt, author of the Wonkblog piece, also prepared a lengthy report on voter fraud in 2007 for the Brennan Center for Justice. It whittles down common stories about thousands of fraudulent votes into the reality that those reports usually stem from haphazard comparisons of voter rolls with population data. Levitt's report also emphasizes the role historical allegations of fraud play in coloring the current debate; indeed, the Heritage Foundation's Web site uses examples from 1844 and 1948 to demonstrate that fraud exists. Many proponents of voter ID laws also cite absentee ballot fraud, despite the fact that these more-plentiful examples wouldn't be affected by voter ID laws.

John Fund of the National Review focused on absentee ballot fraud in an editorial Monday. After the 2012 election, the state legislature in Colorado passed new laws aimed at making it easier to register and vote with as much eagerness as Republican initiatives aimed at things like voter ID. Voters in Colorado this year can register and vote on the same day, and the state moved to an all-mail ballot system, similar to ones used in Washington and Oregon. This, Fund worries, could lead to an election thrown for the Democrats. Fund has argued for new voting restrictions like voter ID laws for years, and his column includes a contested figure for fraud in the 2008 Minnesota election that focuses on felons who voted before being legally allowed to do so. Is Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the winner of that 2008 race, a senator thanks to voter fraud? It's unlikely.

In an e-mail to The Post, Levitt made clear that absentee ballots can be a threat to the integrity of elections. He pointed to instances in a Pennsylvania state Senate race in 1994 and the Miami mayor's race in 1998 as examples. Fraud in absentee balloting is "unfortunately quite real," he said.

That doesn't mean it's widespread, though. In 2013, an election worker in Oregon was sentenced to jail for fraud — becoming the 13th person in the state to be convicted since it went to all-mail balloting in 2000.

And it's worth re-emphasizing here that most voter ID laws don't specifically target absentee ballots. And, in fact, the laws largely wouldn't do anything to curtail absentee voter fraud even incidentally if passed — a key point in Levitt's Wonkblog essay.

"The thing about voter fraud isn't that it doesn't exist," Levitt told The Post on Monday. "It does exist, and all responsible observers both know and say that. The question is whether the proposed policy solution (invariably tighter ID requirements at the polls) is tailored to the problem that actually exists, and at the same time not sufficiently severe that it creates more trouble than it solves."

That's a subtlety that is often lost.