Belladonna, n.: In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison.
A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
– Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1914?)
As the Supreme Court made clear in Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Comm., “A State indisputably has a compelling interest in preserving the integrity of its election process.” 489 U.S. 214, 231 (1989). Of equal importance, however, is the “fundamental political right” to vote. Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 336 (1972). Prior to becoming a basis for action, claims of voter fraud must be scrutinized carefully.
In February, the Pew Center on the States raised concerns that the American election system is vulnerable to voter fraud. The Pew Center report found that more than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as voters, approximately 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state, and that about 12 million records contain incorrect addresses. At first glance, the Pew Center report is jarring. And if those were the only statistics concerning the incidence of voter fraud in which you encountered, it would seem as if voter fraud is the looming menace to the integrity of our elections.
Indeed, the Pew Center report seemed to provide more justification to the state legislatures that have passed legislation voter ID laws aimed at combating voter fraud (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin), and increased urgency to the 24 other states with similar measures being proposed. Behind the veneer, however, are solutions in search of a problem. These laws are aimed at preventing one specific kind of voter fraud: in-person voter fraud (i.e., voting multiple times, voting as someone else, or voting despite knowing that they are ineligible). But of the problems and inefficiencies concerning the administration of our elections, in-person voter fraud is not one of them. Not even close.
Despite the fact that there are an estimated 11 percent of U.S. citizens – more than 21 million people – who do not have the required photo ID to comply with the new laws, voter fraud occurs at an incidence of 0.000003 percent. Since 2000, there have been only 2,068 cases of voter fraud during which there have been more than 600,000,000 votes cast in presidential elections alone. In-person voter fraud is even rarer, occurring at an incidence of 0.000000017 percent. When confronted with the dearth of evidence supporting their cause, supporters of voter ID laws, like Bill Denny, a Republican state representative of Mississipi, often retort: “Whether you have proof of it or not, what in the heavens is wrong with showing an ID at polls?” Simply put, in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore received 50,999,897 votes (48.38 percent; 266 Electoral College votes) to George W. Bush’s 50,456,002 votes (47.87 percent; 271 Electoral College votes). Votes matter. Potentially disenfranchising 21 million people can change the course of history.
With the incredibly low incidence of voter fraud in the United States, it should be obvious that existing penalties, which include five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, are sufficient. Ask yourself: is it worth risking that kind of punishment for a single incremental vote? The answer should be obvious that it is not. What existing penalties are not sufficient in preventing, however, is absentee ballot voter fraud. As UCLA School of Law professor Daniel Lowenstein noted, “The one issue I think is potentially important, though more or less ignored, is the overuse of absentee balloting, which provides far more opportunity for fraud and intimidation than on-site voter fraud.” Why hasn’t absentee balloting been targeted by Republican legislatures across the country with the same virulence as in-person voter fraud? Because absentee ballots overwhelmingly favor Republicans. It is simply not in the GOPs interest to target such behavior.
In light of these facts, it is trivially easy to dismiss organizations dedicated to combating voter fraud as possessing sinister intentions and a desire to improperly influence the November elections. Indeed, as the Huffington Post correctly notes, “those disproportionately affected by voter ID laws include the elderly, minorities, the poor and young adults. Three out of four of those demographic groups tend to vote more Democratic than Republican.” Statements from Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), noting that the states voter ID requirement “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” seem to support such an interpretation. Indeed, even though Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele has maintained that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters have the photo ID required to vote (despite admitting that “I don’t know what the law says”), Pennsylvania officials determined that more than 758,000 registered voters – representing 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million eligible voters – do not have the required documentation. Given that Barack Obama beat John McCain by 605,820 votes in Pennsylvania in the 2008 election (54.7 percent to 44.3 percent), the 758,000 registered voters potentially affected by the law are far from inconsequential.
This problem is far more acute in urban areas. In Philadelphia, for example, Barack Obama won “decisively” in 2008, capturing 574,930 votes (83.1 percent) to John McCain’s 113,260 votes (16.4 percent). However, the new voter ID law would disenfranchise an estimated 186,830 people, or 18 percent of the city’s eligible voters. The rationale for such legislation appears blatantly obvious: remove enough voters from the voting rolls by instituting requirements targeting populations more likely to vote democratic, and you pave the way for the Republican nominee to dance his way into the White House.
Organizations such as True the Vote are committed to combating voter fraud and ensuring the integrity of our elections. True the Vote did not exist prior to the 2008 election; rather, it “began out of experiences during the 2008 election cycle of the Harris County, Texas Tea Party organization, King Street Patriots.” The founders of True the Vote perceived the shortfall of poll workers and the ACORN controversy as evidence of an increased risk of voter fraud in American elections. And to combat this risk, True the Vote has “developed an exportable model” in which the organization teaches individuals to search their voter rolls and report inaccuracies, identify voter fraud, and “serve as observers at the polls.”
True the Vote’s activities appear to be motivated by simple political gamesmanship. But, as is most often the case, the reality is more nuanced. True the Vote, and organizations like it, do not interpret their mission as motivated by partisan politics and resentment. Rather, these organizations, despite their political foundations, honestly believe that the American electoral system is under attack and that it is their duty to protect America from fraud and abuse. As True the Vote’s mission statement indicates (emphasis in original):
True the Vote is an initiative developed by citizens for citizens, meant to inspire and equip volunteers for involvement at every stage of our electoral process . . . Our government was built upon the belief that election results represent the true will of the people and our election processes were always intended to be supported by citizen volunteers. We are helping stop corruption where it can start – at the polls.
Key to understanding True the Vote’s motivation is the following statement from its mission statement quoted above: that “election results represent the true will of the people” (emphasis added). The 2008 election, according to True the Vote, was plagued by dysfunction and hijacked by pervasive “fraud and law-breaking.” Enough fraud and abuse such that the final results, in which Barack Obama received 52.92 percent of the vote (and 365 Electoral College votes) to John McCain’s 45.66 percent of the vote (and 173 Electoral College votes), did not represent the “true will” of the people.
True the Vote’s mission statement is thus based on the basic premise that, had will of the American people been expressed, Barack Obama would not have been elected president. The fact that he was elected is indicative of fraud. This charge strikes at the heart of our democracy. And it is grounded in a deeper problem for Republicanism in the United States; namely, the threat posed by an increasingly diverse electorate that is fundamentally changing the political landscape of America.The Republican response to this “threat” has been reflexive, and it is grounded in the charge of Otherness (i.e. the election of individuals whose ethics supposedly disavow traditional American values and eschew We The People). That President Obama represents something un-American is at the core of Republican attacks against his presidency. There is a systematic effort on the Right to describe President Obama as “different from the rest of us,” to describe his policies as grounded in “radical-left politics,” and to claim that his vision for America is, in the words of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “extraordinarily foreign.” Despite the overt ignorance and subtle racism at display in these statements, they have certainly influenced perceptions that Barack Obama is something that he is not. For example, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a poll this past July indicating that 48 percent of registered voters either believe that Obama is Muslim (17 percent) or said that they did not know Obama’s religious beliefs (31 percent), despite the fact that he is a Christian.
Labeling President Obama as an Other goes beyond simply Obama as an individual. At the center of the Republican attacks on Obama’s Otherness is the implication that, in addition to Obama himself, those who voted for him – 52.92 percent of America – were either cut from the same cloth or were put under his spell. And now, after the spell has worn off, America faces a choice. Either you support [insert Republican candidate here], and are therefore committed to “renewing American values.” Or you support [insert Democratic candidate here], and are therefore committed to the continued erosion of American values and the destruction of America from within. If you fall into the former camp, you are viewed as patriotic. But if you fall into the latter camp, you are viewed as a saboteur. Like President Obama, you too are an Other.
The Republican Party evidently believes that nearly half of the country (47 percent) are cut from the same cloth as Obama, leaving only the remaining 5.92 percent of the country as potential swing voters who can be “saved” from Obama’s spell. This belief is at the heart of GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney’s recent statements belittling 47 percent of Americans who will allegedly vote for President Obama “no matter what.” But while the bluntness of Romney’s statement is jarring, the substance of the argument is consistent with mainstream Republican philosophy. The Right is legitimately concerned with how Romney stated his beliefs. But few are concerned that Romney actually holds them.
Behind closed doors at a $50,000 per-plate event, Romney was merely repeating the familiar argument that the United States is divided into two kinds of people: The Makers and The Takers. Under President Obama, the Republicans see a vast expansion of the Takers – i.e., people who are “dependent on government” and “believe that they are victims.” A major plank in the Republican argument as to why Mitt Romney is deserving of our vote rests on our basic tribal instincts and xenophobia. There is legitimate concern over the U.S. poverty rate: since Obama took office, according to the most recent poverty figures available (2010), the U.S. poverty rate has risen from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent, and the number of American poor has risen from 43.6 million to 46.2 million. But that is not the concern underlying Romney’s statements.
Under the Romney formula, as David Brooks notes, “People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.” This comment, Brooks derides, is nothing but “a country-club fantasy.” It provides, in the words of Michael Gerson, “No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope for change.” What is remarkable about these critiques are not their substance, but their source. Brooks, despite having his detractors on the Right, describes himself as a former liberal, but says that he switched his allegiances after “coming to my senses.” Gerson is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and has worked at the Heritage Foundation.
In many ways, the modern GOP is flying apart. To save the Grand Old Party, Republicans have adopted the politics of division and voter suppression. As Sigmund Freud explained in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), “it is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are people left over to receive the manifestation of their aggressiveness.” It is this mindset that is driving organizations like True the Vote to combat “voter fraud” across the country, even though voter fraud occurs at an incidence of 0.000003 percent and in-person voter fraud is even rarer at an incidence of 0.000000017 percent. It is this mindset that is driving politicians to label 47 percent of America as the Moocher Class. It is a mindset based upon Us Against The World. It is un-American. And it is deeply flawed.