By Robert Schlesinger |
Voter fraud would be a real problem if it actually happened. It's a serious crime, and one that can undermine our democracy. Fortunately, it's a crime we have largely figured out how to prevent.
Most claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without any fire. Charges of hordes of ineligible voters almost always turn out to be false. For example, South Carolina recently claimed that over 900 dead people had voted in recent elections. But when election authorities conducted a painstaking study of 207 of those allegations, they discovered nothing more than clerical errors, bad data matching, and stray marks on scanners. They found not one instance of an actual dead person voting.
This is typical. Study after study makes clear that voter fraud is extremely rare, and impersonation fraud—the kind of fraud used to justify tighter voter ID requirements and other voting restrictions—is even rarer. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit impersonation fraud, according to our exhaustive research. This makes sense, because impersonation fraud is a singularly stupid crime. You can't affect an election unless you do it thousands of times, there are lots of ways to get caught, and the punishment is severe.
Between 2002 and 2005, the Justice Department made the investigation and prosecution of voter fraud a top priority. Out of the hundreds of millions of votes cast during that period, the department brought only 38 cases, only one of which involved impersonation fraud. When some U.S. attorneys refused to bring baseless prosecutions for voter fraud, the attorney general fired them. We all know the massive controversy that resulted.
If voter fraud is so rare, why do we hear about it so much? The hunt for voter fraud appears designed to drum up support for voting restrictions that would likely drive eligible citizens, especially minorities and the poor, from the polls.
Since the beginning of 2011, a wave of laws making it harder to vote passed across the country. In Florida, for example, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote shut down voter registration drives because of an onerous and baseless new law. Fortunately, a judge temporarily blocked this law, enabling groups to restart their drives.
Instead of rolling back voting rights, lawmakers should focus on modernizing our voting system and increasing access to the polls. Vote suppression is the real fraud in our election system. It's time to fix it.
About Wendy Weiser Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice
Hans A. Von Spakovsky Manager of the Heritage Foundation's Civil Justice Reform Initiative
Steven Greenhut Vice President of Journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
Vanessa Cardenas Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress
Howard Simon Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida