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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Fallacy Behind Voter ID

by capper

It's another election year, and the calls for voter ID have been ringing out like never before. This din has only increased when the Special Investigations Unit of the Milwaukee Police Department came out with a report that basically said that they couldn't find any specific cases of fraud, but that there still should be something done about it. For further examination of this report, I would suggest going to look at Xoff's analysis, as well as that of the mighty Brawler. The Brawler takes another look at it and finds that not even the Milwaukee Police Department refuses to take an official stand on the report that it's own members created, raising even more suspicions about the validity of said report.

Now, I haven't chimed in on this subject, since the notable and worthy gentlemen, among many others, have already done a far better job of covering the report than I could. But there is something that bothers me.

The right claim that voter fraud is rampant and that the only way to stop it is through voter ID. But I recalled that good old grandpa capper, when he was alive, voted via absentee ballot. They would mail him the ballot, and like the wise old man he was, he would dutifully check off his choices (usually democratic, hence the wisdom) and I would sign off on it as a witness, and write down my address.

This always struck me as odd, since there was no way for them to readily verify who grandpa was, or even who I was. (Even more so for me, as that I am unlisted and unpublished.) It always seemed to me that it would be very easy to commit fraud, either by faking signatures, or by someone tricking or coercing someone to sign off on the ballot, even though they didn't do the voting.

So I poked around a little and found this article, written by Garrett Epps. Epps covers the issue of voter ID in general and gives us some history, including the fact that voter fraud is not a recent crisis, as those on the right would have us believe, but actually has been around for generations:
Folklore pervades the history of voter fraud in the United States. During the era of "live voice" voting, when voters shouted their choices in front of their neighbors, there was rampant bribery, intimidation, miscounting and voter impersonation. Roving gangs of ringers, plied with whiskey and $2 bills, voted in multiple locations under false names.

During the Gilded Age and the Progressive era, as Alex Keyssar documents in his monumental study The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, the idea of the fraudulent voter coincided with social anxiety among the "better sort" about the political influence of the uneducated and recent immigrants. Whether or not they were legally entitled to vote, their votes were seen almost as fraudulent per se. In the turn-of-the-century South, voter restriction was a keystone of the burgeoning segregated system. "Voter fraud" meant votes cast by black and poor white voters. In the West, fraud meant voting by Native Americans.

Epps also succinctly agreed with my own suspicions regarding the real area of voter fraud:
No one on either side of the issue disputes that voter fraud occurs. But study after study has made clear that documented fraud is almost exclusively confined to absentee ballots. Absentee voting is one area where Republicans have traditionally out-organized Democrats; the new voter ID laws make almost no reforms to the absentee-vote system.

The voter-fraud argument comes down to a kind of duel over common sense. Voter ID proponents dismiss the lack of evidence; it stands to reason, they say, that if requirements are not strict, ineligible people will vote. Opponents counter that if it's hard to vote, some legal voters won't go to the polls. Whose votes matter? In recent years, conservative groups have insisted that precedence should go to "legitimate" voters, the kind of people who have ready access to ID. After all, Posner notes, "try flying, or even entering a tall building such as the courthouse in which we sit, without one." The roughly 18 percent of Americans who have never flown on a commercial airline are less worthy of concern.

Even conservative writers like John Fund at the Wall Street Journal note that there is a high potential for fraud with absentee ballots:
It's certainly true that voters like no-excuses absentee voting for its convenience. "Forcing voters to go to the polls to cast their ballots is an antiquated, outdated, absurd practice," says Oren Spiegler, a Pennsylvania voter. But it comes at a price. Simply put, absentee voting makes it easier to commit election fraud, because the ballots are cast outside the supervision of election officials. "By loosening up the restrictions on absentee voting they have opened up more chances for fraud," Damon Stone, a former West Virginia election fraud investigator, told the New York Times.

It's so easy to cheat you'd be surprised who's been caught at it. In 1998, former congressman Austin Murphy of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, was convicted of absentee-ballot fraud in a nursing home, where residents' failing mental capacities make them an easy mark. "In this area there's a pattern of nursing home administrators frequently forging ballots under residents' names," Sean Cavanagh, a former Democratic county supervisor from the area, told me. He says that many nursing home owners rely on regular "bounties" from candidates whom they allow to enter their facilities and harvest votes.

Absentee voting also corrupts the secret ballot. Because an absentee ballot is "potentially available for anyone to see, the perpetrator of coercion can ensure it is cast 'properly,' unlike a polling place, where a voter can promise he will vote one way but then go behind the privacy curtain and vote his conscience," notes John Fortier, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in his new book, Absentee and Early Voting.

If the right is so genuinely concerned about voter fraud, why are they consistently demanding an expensive, immoral and unconstitutional version of a poll tax, instead of going after the area where the highest level of voter fraud is committed? Oh yeah, because of which side usually votes which way. But there's no effort to disenfranchise voters--yeah, right.

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