Thursday, March 29, 2007

“Voter fraud” fraud

“Vote early and vote often” is typical of the clichés heard around election time expressing a cynicism about the fairness of our electoral system. However, the cynicism is based not only more on myth than reality but it can be used to justify efforts to suppress voter participation. One of the excuses given for the firings of U.S Attorneys as part of the Purgegate scandal is that some of them failed to prosecute voter fraud. Unfortunately for them, they decided their prosecution priorities based upon evidence rather than press releases from the Republican National Committee. According to Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt who have a column in this morning’s Washington Post:

Those investigating the U.S. attorney firings should ask what orders went out to other prosecutors in the run-up to the 2006 election. Prosecutors are not hired-gun lawyers on a party payroll. They have a special duty to exercise their power responsibly, particularly in the context of a heated election. Pressure on prosecutors to join a witch hunt for individual voter fraud is a scandal, not just for the Justice Department but for voters seeking to exercise their most basic right.

American voter participation is embarrassing low for a country that brags about its commitment to democracy. Voter suppression is not the only cause of low turnout. Because of redistricting, very few legislative races at the national or state level are competitive. Because of the Electoral College, very few states are competitive in Presidential elections. Why go to the trouble of cheating when it is unlikely to make any difference anyway? Allegations of voter fraud assume votes cast by most citizens actually makes a difference. This is not to say there are no competitive elections – obviously there are but way, way too many are rigged to pre-determine an outcome (gerrymandered districts) or to minimize participation (the Electoral College). The real scandal isn’t voter fraud but the system we use to choose our representative government.

That said, the topic at hand is voter fraud. Waldman and Levitt discuss the myth of voter fraud:
Before and after every close election, politicians and pundits proclaim: The dead are voting, foreigners are voting, people are voting twice. On closer examination, though, most such allegations don't pan out. Consider a list of supposedly dead voters in Upstate New York that was much touted last October. Where reporters looked into names on the list, it turned out that the voters were, to quote Monty Python, "not dead yet."

Or consider Washington state, where McKay closely watched the photo-finish gubernatorial election of 2004. A challenge to ostensibly noncitizen voters was lodged in April 2005 on the questionable basis of "foreign-sounding names." After an election there last year in which more than 2 million votes were cast, following much controversy, only one ballot ended up under suspicion for double-voting. That makes sense. A person casting two votes risks jail time and a fine for minimal gain. Proven voter fraud, statistically, happens about as often as death by lightning strike.

Yet the stories have taken on the character of urban myth. Alarmingly, the Supreme Court suggested in a ruling last year (Purcell v. Gonzalez) that fear of fraud might in some circumstances justify laws that have the consequence of disenfranchising voters. But it's already happening -- those chasing imaginary fraud are actually taking preventive steps that would disenfranchise millions of real live Americans.

Identification requirements often sound simple. But some types of paperwork simply aren't available to many Americans. We saw this with the new Medicaid proof-of-citizenship requirement, which led to benefits being cut off for many longtime citizens. Some states insist that voters provide photo IDs such as driver's licenses. But at least 11 percent of voting-age Americans, disproportionately elderly and minority voters, lack the necessary papers. Required documentation such as naturalization paperwork can cost as much as $200. By contrast, when the poll tax was declared unconstitutional in 1966, it was $1.50 ($8.97 in 2007 dollars).
The electoral system in the United States is a work in progress, not a finished product. It is a shame that the red herring of voter fraud receives more attention than the electoral system that sorely needs fixing. Of course, maybe that's the point.

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