If you’ve turned on a TV or read a news website in the past year, there is a good chance you’ve come across a story about voter fraud and legislation enacted to prevent it. These laws, which would require voters to present government-issued photo IDs before casting their ballots, are being proposed by Republican legislators and supported by organizations like True the Vote in order to prevent cases of voter fraud that could jeopardize the credibility of the 2012 election.
There is just one problem: Voter fraud isn’t nearly as big of a problem as it’s made out to be by the proponents of these laws, which would not have a clear impact if instituted.
Voter fraud does in fact exist, but not at a scale that would greatly influence–let alone decide–the presidential election. Research compiled by the National Association of Republican Lawyers, an organization that supports voter ID laws, documented 340 cases of voter fraud in the past ten years, or one for all but 23 residents of Allison Residential Community.
Previous research conducted by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice found a voter fraud rate of 0.0009 percent in the heavily scrutinized 2004 Washington State gubernatorial election and a rate of 0.00004 percent in the 2004 Ohio State gubernatorial election, which is roughly the same rate at which Americans are struck by lighting.
The Brennan Center, which actively works against voter fraud laws and has lobbied New York State for legislation preventing such laws, claimed in a September 2006 study, “Fraud by voters is both irrational and extremely rare,” “Many vivid anecdotes of purported voter fraud have been proven false or do not demonstrate fraud,” and that voter fraud legislation supports a specific political agenda.
While preventing voter fraud with ID laws, regardless of the scale of the problem, may seem like an appropriate course of action, these laws cause a wave a voter disenfranchisement that is disproportionate to the size of the problem. On top of that, this disenfranchisement affects certain demographics at higher rate.
Early last month, a study conducted by the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis found that up to 700,000 young minorities could lose their voting privileges to stricter ID laws. Research by the Brennan Center shows that 25 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Hispanics don’t have the appropriate forms of ID compared to 9 percent of whites, which averages out to 11 percent nationally.
According to the study, minority voters are “poorer and more transient,” making the process of applying for a government ID with accurate information complicated and costly.
On Aug. 30, a federal court blocked a Texas voter ID law that imposed “strict, unforgiving burdens” on minority voters, said the three-judge panel.
These laws can also have severe implications on elderly voters who lack the appropriate government ID or access to the necessary paperwork to apply for one.
However, Laurel Harbridge, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, says that while evidence of voter fraud is extremely rare, it’s difficult to make assumptions about how voter ID laws will effect the election in one way or another.
“The efficiency of the voter ID laws are unclear,” Harbridge wrote in an email. “The political story is certainly that ID laws disadvantage minorities and poorer citizens, both of which are Democratic constituencies.”
She continued, “However, the groups of people that are least likely to have IDs are also the groups that are least likely to vote (regardless of the voter ID law).”
Because of the exclusive nature of these laws and their Republican backing, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, many political pundits such as Bill Maher have accused proponents of these laws of trying to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and suppress votes for President Barack Obama.
Supporting these claims, Mike Turazi, Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said on camera that these voter ID laws would help Romney win the state. However, on Tuesday, the implementation of this law was delayed until after the general election.
Harbridge also wrote that the unprecedented levels of political polarization play just as much of a role in the debate over voter ID laws as the laws' goal.
“The political conflict may be partly due to actual effects of laws (either on preventing fraud or on altering turnout),” wrote Harbridge, “but is also part of the broader political narrative of which party looks out for the interests of group X or Y. So it's about each party trying to attack the other.”
While the debate over voter ID laws will continue long after Nov. 6, the larger, vitriolic political narrative obscures the true nature of the issue.
Voter fraud is incredibly rare and its impact is immeasurable because of its infrequency. Voter ID laws are becoming more prevalent, but their impact is hard to measure because of extenuating circumstances. But the debate over this issue is another example of how the toxic political climate that’s stagnated our Congress is turning even the most fundamental American rights into talking points and wedge issues.