Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Alleged voter registration fraud and the politics of resentment

The Republican strategy regarding supposed voter registration fraud is in part a factor in an ongoing effort to suppress voter participation wherever possible. By trying to somehow taint the registration effort the hope is to first scare some people away from registering and secondly to lay the groundwork for future legislation to restrict registration to fewer and fewer people.

Voter registration drives is the essence of civic engagement that drive conservatives crazy, especially when it is done by organizations like ACORN that targets people in low income communities for voter registration and does so by hiring low income people. to carry out the registration effort. The whole voter registration system is incredibly inefficient – far too many perfectly legitimate citizens are prohibited from voting due to the complexity of registration (which varies from state to state and, in some cases, from county to county) and there certainly is the opportunity for bogus or fraudulent registration. However, if an illegitimate registration makes it through the system there still is no evidence this turns into an illegitimate vote which should be the real concern.

The other, more immediate, point of all this whining is to prepare McCain supporters for defeat by sowing the seeds of doubt in the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2008 election – in other words, McCain loses not because more Americans cast ballots for Obama but because the election was stolen from McCain. It is the politics of resentment that feeds far rightwing politics.

Matthew Yglesias has these observations on the recent outcry about voter registration:
I find that an awful lot of problems are caused by people’s inability to understand things like error rates and big numbers. If a pharmaceutical company came out with a new anti-depression drug and gave it to a million people suffering from depression, of whom 970,000 were helped you wouldn’t turn around and conclude that the company was perpetrating a deliberate fraud based on the fact that “tens of thousands” of patients got no relief. You’d say that the medicine was helpful in 97 percent of the indicated cases. ACORN is trying — and succeeding — in an effort to register a lot of new voters.

There’s simply no way to gather over one million new voter registration forms without some of the forms having been filled out with bogus information. You could ask the group to automatically toss out the obviously wrong ones — some guy saying he’s Tony Romo, someone else saying he’s Mickey Mouse — but the law requires them to hand all the forms in to prevent them from tossing out forms filled out by people who say they want to register Republican. Consequently, if you go out and register over a million voters you’ll wind up with a lot of bad forms being submitted. But just as 30,000 is a lot of people and also only a very small fraction of one million people, when you’re talking about registering over a million new voters you’d need orders of magnitude more bad forms to constitute real evidence of a systematic fraud campaign.

Meanwhile, if you want to reduce the number of bad forms submitted, you have basically three options:
1. Make voter registration much easier and more automatic so as to reduce the need for registration drives.

2. Let registration organizers toss out forms.

3. Stop all registration drives by conflating good faith errors with systematic, criminal fraud.
Conservatives like option (3) because they don’t like it when large numbers of people vote. And that’s what this is about, finding a backdoor way to delegitimize all efforts at large-scale registration drives. …
And Josh Marshall offers this explanation about the Republican campaign to discredit ACORN’s voter registration efforts and bamboozle the American people:
The Republican party is grasping on to the ACORN story as a way to delegitimize what now looks like the probable outcome of the November election. It is also a way to stoke the paranoia of their base, lay the groundwork for legal challenges of close outcomes in various states and promote new legal restrictions on legitimate voting by lower income voters and minorities. The big picture is that these claims of 'voter fraud' are themselves a fraud, a tool to aid in suppressing Democratic voter turnout. But I want give readers a bit more detail to understand what is going because the right-wing freak out about ACORN happens pretty much on schedule every two years. The whole scam is premised on having enough people who don't remember when they tried it before who they can then confuse and lie to. And this is clearly important because I'm hearing from a lot of people whose heart is in the right place thinking some real voter fraud conspiracy has been uncovered and that Obama has to distance himself from it post-haste.

ACORN registers lots of lower income and/or minority voters. They operate all across the country and do a lot of things beside voter registration. What's key to understand is their method. By and large they do not rely on volunteers to register voters. They hire people -- often people with low incomes or even the unemployed. This has the dual effect of not only registering people but also providing some work and income for people who are out of work. But because a lot of these people are doing it for the money, inevitably, a few of them cut corners or even cheat. So someone will end up filling out cards for nonexistent names and some of those slip through ACORN's own efforts to catch errors. (It's important to note that in many of the recent ACORN cases that have gotten the most attention it's ACORN itself that has turned the people in who did the fake registrations.) These reports start buzzing through the right-wing media every two years and every time the anecdotal reports of 'thousands' of fraudulent registrations turns out, on closer inspection, to be either totally bogus themselves or wildly exaggerated. So thousands of phony registrations ends up being, like, twelve.

I've always had questions about whether this is a good way to do voter registration. And Democratic campaigns usually keep their distance. But here's the key. This is fraud against ACORN. They end up paying people for registering more people then they actually signed up. If you register me three times to vote, the registrar will see two new registrations of an already registered person and the ones won't count. If I successfully register Mickey Mouse to vote, on election day, Mickey Mouse will still be a cartoon character who cannot go to the local voting station and vote. Logically speaking there's very little way a few phony names on the voting rolls could be used to commit actual vote fraud. And much more importantly, numerous studies and investigations have shown no evidence of anything more than a handful of isolated cases of actual instances of vote fraud.

To expand on this point let me quote from Richard Hasen, one of the most experienced and concise commentators on this question, from a June 2007 column in the Dallas Morning News ...
At least in hindsight, the center's line of argument is easily deconstructed. First, arguing by anecdote is dangerous business. A new report by Lorraine Minnite of Barnard College looks at these anecdotes and shows them to be, for the most part, wholly spurious. Sure, one can find a rare case of someone voting in two jurisdictions, but nothing extensive or systematic has been unearthed or documented.

But perhaps most importantly, the idea of massive polling-place fraud (through the use of inflated voter rolls) is inherently incredible. Suppose I want to swing the Missouri election for my preferred presidential candidate. I would have to figure out who the fake, dead or missing people on the registration rolls are, then pay a lot of other individuals to go to the polling place and claim to be that person, without any return guarantee - thanks to the secret ballot - that any of them will cast a vote for my preferred candidate.

Those who do show up at the polls run the risk of being detected and charged with a felony. And for what - $10? Polling-place fraud, in short, makes no sense.

The Justice Department devoted unprecedented resources to ferreting out fraud over five years and appears to have found not a single prosecutable case across the country. Of the many experts consulted, the only dissenter from that position was a representative of the now-evaporated American Center for Voting Rights.
Again, there have been numerous investigations of this. Often by people with at least a mild political interest in finding wrongdoing. But they never find it. It always ends up being right-wing hype and lies. Remember, most of those now-famous fired US Attorneys from 2007 were Republican appointees who were canned after they got tasked with investigating allegations of widespread vote fraud, did everything they could to find it, but came up with nothing. That was the wrong answer so Karl Rove and his crew at the Justice Department fired them.

Vote registration fraud is a limited and relatively minor problem in the US today. But it is principally an administrative and efficiency issue. It is has little or nothing to do with people casting illegitimate votes to affect an actual election. That's the key. What you're hearing right now from Fox News, the New York Post, John Fund and the rest of the right-wing bamboozlement chorus is a just another effort to exploit, confuse and lie in an effort to put more severe restrictions on legitimate voting and lay the groundwork to steal elections.

It's that simple.
If the Republicans are so concerned about the legitimacy of voter registration how about simplifying the process by first making all standards and requirements national (rather than by state) and then secondly making registration automatic with the issuance of a driver’s license or something similar. Or, if automatic registration is too much to swallow, then allow Election Day registration at the polls. There are lots of possibilities on how to improve the system to encourage participation but, of course, that’s not what the Republicans really have in mind.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

How strange that the GOP is resorting to the same tactics as the Democrats did four years ago.

I'm not saying voter suppression doesn't happen, but I'm reminded of how turnabout is fair play in politics.