Your Brief Primer on “Voter Fraud,” and Voter ID Laws

This has turned out to be a pretty good, but pretty packed week, which you might rightly conclude from the lazier posting schedule. But one thing that I’ve seen a lot of this week, and yet forgotten to reduce to a post, is a resurgence of Republican interest in voter ID laws — provisions that require voters to demonstrate absolute proof of their identity to cast a ballot. This probably seems inoffensive enough: we don’t want fake voters, after all, so the system has to make some allowance to permit only actual voters to vote. Right?

Right. The problem is that the task of verification is already done, long before Election Day, making pollsite ID checks superfluous. Voters only receive a ballot if their name appears on the rolls for their pollsite, and those records are very scrupulously maintained, with new registrants receiving extensive vetting.  For instance, regardless of whether you sign a phony registration form, the form never translates to a valid registration unless the information provided to a state board of elections matches a valid, unique, non-registered citizen profile. (This is why the ACORN “scandal” was so ridiculous: it’s impossible to “register” phony voters without an accomplice in the state board.)

Consequentially, pollsite voter ID checks laws fill no real need, meaning their only purpose is to chill participation from those voters wary of “papers-please” investigations (such as new Americans) or to harass that 12% of voters who simply don’t have photo ID. This is the debate I got into with a Republican friend on Facebook. Enjoy.

Republican #1: Requiring an individual to have a photo ID to vote is an excessive government burden, but requiring individuals to pay thousands of dollars of year to a private company for a commercial product (health insurance) is not. I don’t think I entirely follow the logic.

Me: It could be that one costs you some money, while the other could cost you your basic right to vote and is only ever deployed so as to suppress voter turnout in undesirable districts. Or it could have something to do with Carolene footnote 4. But who knows!

Republican #1: Those rabid conservatives who only support voter ID laws to suppress democratic turnout…like… Jimmy Carter… or… a majority of hispanics… If states require photo ID’s, but don’t offer free voter photo ID’s, it seems to be a clear problem and similar to a poll tax. But, if the state provides free photo ID’s, where is the problem?

Me: Regardless of any of the above, you’re targeting a nonexistent problem. Recall that Bush bent a large portion of the will of his Justice department to target the “serious” problem of voter fraud. After five years, that led to… 86 convictions. Nationwide. And almost none of those offenses would’ve been stopped by photo ID requirements. He was looking for a problem, and he literally found none.

Second, “free” voter ID is a misnomer. The newly-created form of ID may be free, but to get one, you have to present other, non-free documents that not everyone has on hand (and especially not the poor). For more, consider Demos and the Brennan Center, both of whom nail it (as they usually do).

I work with election law professionals on a weekly basis. The universal consensus is that an ID requirement is a hack’s solution to a hack’s problem.

Republican #1: Since I’m sure you know more about this than I do, what are realistic requirements that can be place in order for an individual to prove he’s a citizen and not disenfranchise voters?
I think the above is relevant to your argument that “the only reason people want voter ID laws” is to keep democratic leaning voters from voting. Clearly, Carter, Davis, a majority of hispanics have other motivations for their support. Also, unless I’m mistaken, don’t many Western European countries require ID to vote?

Me: I’m not interested in Carter or western Europe, and you don’t design voting laws by poll. You trust in your registration system and MAYBE have a photo ID requirement the first time someone votes. That’s what New York does. But the fact of the matter is if you can’t register you can’t vote, so frontload the burden of proof to the registration phase. Maybe some fraud slips through. But if the choice is between 86 fraudulent votes over a five year period or chilling 10-20% participation on election day, you elect the former, unless you have an ulterior motive.

Republican #2: Just a note — sure there were only 86 convictions for voter fraud over 5 years, but (1) when 1 person can fraudulently create multiple voters (the legions of dead voters in New Jersey come to mind), and (2) politicians have a vest interest in NOT disrupting voter fraud too much (because they may themselves be profiting from such fraud), that 86 convictions number doesn’t actually mean a whole lot.

Me: More flawed data. Republicans charged that particular abuse in 2005, but no “dead voters” were found after a thorough audit. AND, had any such fraud actually occurred, that would’ve been substantially before HAVA implementation, which makes fraud a little harder today.

Republican #1: You may not be interested in Carter or Western Europe as to what you think the right laws are, but it at least undercuts your “anyone who is in favor of voter ID laws are racists who want to suppress voter turnout” argument. If that is your argument, then it sort of proves too much about Carter and Western European countries.

The point is that some members of the left’s reflexive response to most policies they disagree with is “racists; vote surpressers; women haters; bigots.” Maybe, just maybe, political debates can move beyond those ad hominem arguments. Pointing out that those “racist” republicans have similar views to Carter and many Western European countries can maybe temper those types of arguments. Just a thought.

Me: I didn’t call anyone a bigot. You’re the first one to mention race in this thread. But it’s pretty funny that you run right to the “everyone calls us racists,” reverse-victimization line.

In any event, it’s actually quite true that voter ID laws disproportionately effect minorities. That’s not messaging or name-calling; it’s just the data. And no amount of “cover” from Carter, or Europe, can make that data go away, or create evidence of a real voter fraud problem in this country, which you also continue to lack.

Republican #1: You did say that Voter ID laws are “only ever deployed so as to suppress voter turnout in undesirable districts.” That’s pretty close to “Damn conservatives don’t want the minorities to have the right to vote,” which is pretty damn close to “racists.”

My point is, whatever side of the position you take, there are some people who support voter ID laws (Jimmy Carter, a majority of hispanics, Western European countries, etc.) who presumably don’t do so for racist…I mean “suppression of voter turnout in undesirable districts” reasons.

Me: So your argument is that I’ve used secret liberal code words to call your position racist, without calling your position racist. I see. This fear of the crypto-race-card sounds perfectly reasonable, and not at all like a way to interpose a distraction! I share your concern.

(Reminds me of how, when fundamentalists start losing the gay marriage argument based on concerns for equality, they magically shift to complaining about how seeing gay people marry somehow oppresses them. Simply brilliant messaging.)

Now, I suppose I have to admit that you’ve identified plausibly left-leaning people who support voter ID laws. But I suppose you have to admit that all you have to answer my argument is, “hey, look at some things these dudes said!,” which preserves the possibility that all of you are wrong together. That’s the problem with unsupported arguments from authority.

As a postlude, there may’ve been fraud in the nominating petition process. But that’s not something that’s ever fixed by voter ID laws…. and it’s irrelevant. Do we really think Obama wouldn’t have qualified in some states, but for petition fraud? Please.



  1. Regarding your friend’s fascination with Western European election systems, I can add that the way we do it here in the Scandinavian countries is to have a huge register of all citizens with their names, address and ID#. So when there’s an election, our friendly government simply sends you a voter card which you take down to the polling station and cast your vote. If you don’t have the card for whatever reason, you do need photo ID of some sort.

    It’s a good system, although I do wonder what the average Republican would think of it.

  2. MarshallDog · ·

    Jimmy Carter likes photo ID laws, so all liberals are demanded to love them as well!

    You know that internet rule that says the first person in an argument to compare their opponent to Hitler automatically loses? We might have found the opposite: If a conservative is arguing for a regressive policy by saying Jimmy Carter likes it, and it’s therefore good, they automatically lose the argument.

    1. “You know that internet rule that says the first person in an argument to compare their opponent to Hitler automatically loses?”

      That rule is a pile of crap. When someone compares their opponent to Hitler, you have to look at the substance of the comparison and identify the alleged similarities and dissimilarities in behavior/condition/whatever to determine if it’s a valid or invalid comparison because sometimes people who compare their opponent to Hitler are right and an “automatically loses” “rule” is nothing more than a snide way to clap your hands over your ears and say “I’m not listening, I’m not listening”.

      1. That sounds like something Hitler would say. :nods:

  3. Whenever I try to debate people, I try to believe that they truly believe they claim will do the thing they say it will.

    So, I am assuming, this person believes, that there is some level of voter fraud happening, he thinks that ID’s are something everybody (or at least enough) has. Both inaccurate, but whatever. Then, in the hierarchy of issue importance, he places voter fraud above voter turn-out. Both make his stance, “C’mon just do it, it won’t hurt anyone”.

    And even if it did, it wouldn’t affect Republicans as much and I imagine he is not impoverished or a minority. So these points don’t really register highly in his decision making as a factor since it is separated from his “self interest”.

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