Nov 1 2008

‘Voter Fraud’ Claims Unchecked by Media

Restrictive laws spread based on scant evidence

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Madison Guy

Among Republicans, it has been an “article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections,” declared Royal Masset, the former political director of the Republican Party of Texas (Houston Chronicle, 5/17/07).

This religious faith in widespread voter fraud—or illegal voting—even in the absence of any persuasive evidence, has translated into successful campaigns in 25 states to pass restrictive voter identification laws (e.g., requiring photo ID at the polling place), with other states looking to follow suit. (Masset, a rare dissenter from this Republican creed, is an outspoken foe of what he calls “racist” and “barbaric laws”—Burnt Orange Report, 4/23/07.)

Despite the threat these laws pose to Americans’ right to vote—many legitimate voters lack photo ID, and they are disproportionately poor, older and of color—corporate media have almost entirely failed to illuminate the debate. To properly shed light, the media would have to go beyond repeating each side’s arguments to actually examine the available evidence—which indicates that voter fraud is extremely rare and that efforts to remedy this “problem” result in restricting the franchise (Project Vote, “Restrictive Voter Identification Requirements,” 3/27/07).

Further, providing context for the current struggles would require discussing the long history of efforts to disenfranchise black voters. Southern Democrats began this campaign after the Civil War, but it’s been a part of Republican strategy since 1958; in 1982, in fact, the GOP agreed to a binding federal court order, known as a consent decree, that is supposed to prevent them from voter suppression activities specifically targeting areas with large minority populations. The amended decree is still in force, but rarely cited by major media in coverage of current conflicts over voter ID requirements (Project Vote, “Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters,” 9/07).

Instead, controversies over “voter fraud,” as translated by major media, are commonly portrayed as mere shoving matches for partisan advantage, rather than as major battles over the meaning of voting rights in a democracy. As Extra! documented after the 2004 election (1-2/05), coverage generally gives equal weight to Republicans who argue that large-scale illegal voting is prevalent enough to steal elections, and Democrats who argue that voter ID laws are really aimed at discouraging those likely to vote for their party—with actual facts and the threat to democracy outside the media frame.

David Iglesias, the Republican U.S. attorney for New Mexico who was fired by the Bush administration, said that he looked at over 100 claims of alleged voter fraud but found not a single prosecutable case. “We cannot prosecute on rumor and innuendo,” Iglesias told the Albuquerque Journal (3/15/07). (His refusal to prosecute cases that he felt were bogus was a central feature in his firing, as it was in the cases of nearly half of the 12 U.S. attorneys ousted by the administration—Washington Post, 5/14/07.) Iglesias’ findings are consistent with national data. Federal records “show that only 24 people were convicted or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005” (Project Vote, 3/5/07).

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin study by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee (6/05) showed that requiring a state-issued ID like a driver’s license would have a highly disproportionate impact on blacks, Latinos and the elderly. “Among black males between ages 18 and 24, 78 percent lacked a driver’s license,” the study found (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/14/05).

Moreover, a study of the 2004 election directed by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University showed that laws requiring voters to produce documentation or otherwise prove their identity reduced turnout by about 3 percent compared to other states, and by two to three times more among minorities (USA Today, 2/20/07).

An exceptional Miami Herald story (7/1/07) summarized the results of the McClatchy newspaper chain’s investigation of the Republican electoral strategy, finding that it involved a voter-suppression campaign that was “active on at least three fronts”:

Tax-exempt groups such as the American Center for Voting Rights Legislative Fund and the Republican Lawyers Association were deployed in battleground states to press for restrictive ID laws and oversee balloting.The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division turned traditional voting rights enforcement upside down with legal policies that narrowed rather than protected the rights of minorities.The White House and the Justice Department encouraged selected U.S. attorneys to bring voter fraud prosecutions, despite studies showing that election fraud isn’t a widespread problem.

Unfortunately, even though the case against widespread voter fraud is stronger than it was in 2004, media have scarcely changed their tune. Pam Fessler’s NPR report (9/12/08) on scrutiny of voter registrations in Ohio exemplified this type of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand coverage: “Democrat [Doug] Kelly says Republicans exaggerate the extent of voter fraud. . . . Republican [Kevin] DeWine says his party is just as interested as Democrats in expanding voter participation.”

Despite the well-documented Republican efforts in Ohio in 2004 to frustrate registration and voting by Democratic- leaning constituencies—efforts that may well have changed the outcome of that year’s presidential election (Rolling Stone, 6/1/06; Mark Crispin Miller, Fooled Again)—the NPR piece referred to that history only in a description of current Republican accusations against Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who now “sits in the office that used to be occupied by former Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who Democrats accused of trying to sabotage the last election with his directives.”

ABC’s Jan Crawford Greenburg (4/28/08) likewise left out important facts in reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana’s 2005 voter ID law, the harshest in the nation. Greenburg blandly repeated Justice John Paul Stevens’ arguments that “there was no evidence the law kept a single person from voting,” and that “reaction split down partisan lines,” but she failed to note the paltry evidence of voter fraud cited by Stevens: one case in 1868 and a single more recent case of impersonation-style voter fraud in Washington State (Huffington Post, 4/28/08).

The conventional media format advantages those making the most sensational charges, regardless of their merit. The Washington Post’s “Barbs Traded on Virginia Voter Drives” (6/28/08) began with a he-said she-said frame, first quoting Republican state party chair Jeffrey Frederick—“Unfortunately, there appears to be a coordinated and widespread effort in Virginia to commit voter fraud”—and then noting that “Democrats responded by accusing the GOP of trying to suppress minority voting.”

The Post reported, “Frederick made a public plea for people not to register when approached by a canvasser because of the risk of falling victim to identity theft.” Not until the eighth paragraph did readers learn that “local election officials and police were surprised by Frederick’s comments,” and “said they have found no evidence of fraud or attempts to steal personal information” by Democratic or independent voter-registration groups. And not until the final paragraph were readers told that the only three canvassers charged with fraud in Virginia were reported by the voter-registration group itself: “We were the ones who identified the fraud and reported it to the board of elections,” the organization’s director said.

The Indianapolis Star (4/30/08), which repeatedly editorialized in favor of its state’s new voter ID law, downplayed both the evidence against the widespread existence of voter fraud and the dangers of limiting access to the polls: “The opportunity for fraud was clearly evident,” the newspaper said, adding that “Indiana’s law guards against abuses that have occurred in other states.” The newspaper asserted that the law gives “ample accommodation to potential voters who are unable to obtain an ID.”

The Star’s theory that no one would be harmed by the law was almost immediately put to the test in the May 6 presidential primary in Indiana. Above an AP wire story, the Washington Post ran the headline (5/6/08), “Voter ID Law Consequences Mild in Indiana,” which seemed to defuse the accusations raised by Democrats and black leaders and affirm the Star’s “ample accommodation” claim. Those “mild” consequences included, as the article documented, twelve nuns “in their 80s or 90s” being turned away from their polling station because of a lack of photo ID—in other words, fully half as many voters were disenfranchised at a single polling place as have been found guilty of “voter fraud” over three years’ worth of elections.

The nuns’ story was not reported in the Indianapolis Star.

Roger Bybee, a frequent contributor to Extra!, is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and consultant who often writes about corporate globalization.