The Voter-Fraud Myth: The man [Hans von Spakovsky] who has stoked fear about imposters at the polls

Jane Mayer, The Voter-Fraud Myth. The New Yorker, 29 October 2012. From Jane Mayer’s Notes on Voter Fraud, The New Yorker, 1 November 2012: “[W]hat [Hans von Spakovsky] and other such fearmongers are stubbornly wrong about, and won’t acknowledge no matter how much evidence piles up, is that there is virtually no modern record of individual voters trying to steal elections by impersonating others at the polls. It is this phantom threat that has fuelled the push for voter-I.D. laws over the past few years…. [A] nationwide study of legal records undertaken by the reporting consortium News21 found a grand total of only seven convictions for this type of voter fraud since 2000.”

True the Vote, which was founded in 2009 and is based in Houston, describes itself as a nonprofit organization, created “by citizens for citizens,” that aims to protect “the rights of legitimate voters, regardless of their political party.” Although the group has a spontaneous grassroots aura, it was founded by a local Tea Party activist, Catherine Engelbrecht, and from the start it has received guidance from intensely partisan election lawyers and political operatives, who have spent years stoking fear about election fraud. This cohort—which Roll Call has called the “voter fraud brain trust”—has filed lawsuits, released studies, testified before Congress, and written op-ed columns and books. Since 2011, the effort has spurred legislative initiatives in thirty-seven states to require photo identification to vote….

Mainstream election experts say that Spakovsky has had an improbably large impact. Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, and the author of a recent book, “The Voting Wars,” says, “Before 2000, there were some rumblings about Democratic voter fraud, but it really wasn’t part of the main discourse. But thanks to von Spakovsky and the flame-fanning of a few others, the myth that Democratic voter fraud is common, and that it helps Democrats win elections, has become part of the Republican orthodoxy.” In December, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote, “Election fraud is a real and persistent threat to our electoral system.” He accused Democrats of “standing up for potential fraud—presumably because ending it would disenfranchise at least two of its core constituencies: the deceased and double-voters.” Hasen believes that Democrats, for their part, have made exaggerated claims about the number of voters who may be disenfranchised by Republican election-security measures. But he regards the conservative alarmists as more successful. “Their job is really done,” Hasen says. “It’s common now to assert that there is a need for voter I.D.s, even without any evidence.”…

Thirty-three states have passed some form of voter-I.D. law, the most severe versions of which demand government-issued cards with photographs and expiration dates. A driver’s license typically qualifies, but many students, elderly people, and poor urban residents do not have one.

According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal nonprofit institute at N.Y.U. Law School, eleven per cent of the voting-age population lacks the kind of I.D. cards required by the strictest states. Eighteen per cent of Americans over the age of sixty-five do not have such documentation; among African-Americans the figure is twenty-five per cent….

Congressman John Lewis, the Democrat from Georgia, says of recent efforts to tighten voting requirements, “I thought we’d passed this long ago. But it seems we must fight this fight over and over.” In the nineteen-sixties, Lewis was beaten by police while demonstrating in support of civil-rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act. He said of von Spakovsky, “He’s been the moving force behind photo I.D.s….”….

Nearly all scholars of America’s system of locally run elections acknowledge chronic problems, including administrative incompetence, sloppy registration rolls, unreliable machinery, vote buying, and absentee-ballot fraud. But Robert Brandon, the president of the Fair Elections Legal Network and a longtime reformer, says that the current debate, “which is about people impersonating another voter, is silly.” He adds, “You can’t steal an election one person at a time. You can by stuffing ballot boxes—but voter I.D.s won’t stop that.”…

Hasen says that, while researching “The Voting Wars,” he “tried to find a single case” since 1980 when “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.” He couldn’t find one. News21, an investigative-journalism group, has reported that voter impersonation at the polls is a “virtually non-existent” problem. After conducting an exhaustive analysis of election-crime prosecutions since 2000, it identified only seven convictions for impersonation fraud. None of those cases involved conspiracy.

Lorraine Minnite, a public-policy professor at Rutgers, collated decades of electoral data for her 2010 book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” and came up with some striking statistics. In 2005, for example, the federal government charged many more Americans with violating migratory-bird statutes than with perpetrating election fraud, which has long been a felony. She told me, “It makes no sense for individual voters to impersonate someone. It’s like committing a felony at the police station, with virtually no chance of affecting the election outcome.” A report by the Times in 2007 also found election fraud to be rare. During the Bush Administration, the Justice Department initiated a five-year crackdown on voter fraud, but only eighty-six people were convicted of any kind of election crime….

After Obama took office, von Spakovsky expanded his campaign for voter-I.D. laws and other ballot-security measures. One receptive forum, where he spoke repeatedly, was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC—a conservative, corporate-funded group that drafts legislative models for thousands of state lawmakers. In 2009, after the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter-I.D. law, ALEC drafted a sample voter-I.D. bill for other states to copy. An accompanying essay in the organization’s newsletter explained how to frame such restrictions so that they would pass muster with the courts. Copycat bills emerged in state legislatures across the country. In 2011 and 2012, Republicans proposed sixty-two such laws, in thirty-seven state legislatures. News21 has reported that more than half of these bills were sponsored by associates of ALEC. Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which runs a Web site called ALEC Exposed, says, “Unlike a think tank, ALEC operationalizes the agenda, nationally.”