“We are, in some parts of the country, I’m afraid to say, beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are, you know, colonels in mirrored sunglasses. I mean, it’s a real problem, and I appreciate all that you’re doing in those hot spots around the country to ensure that the ballot—the integrity of the ballot—is protected, because it’s important to our democracy.”
When Rove talks about protecting “ballot integrity,” that is shorthand for disenfranchising Democratic Party voters. Over the last several years, the Justice Department, with the help of White House operatives, has sought to boost GOP electoral fortunes by orchestrating a national campaign against voter fraud. But the administration overreached on December 7, when eight US attorneys were fired, a political scandal that some say could become this president’s Watergate.
When Republicans talk about voter fraud they are referring to illegal voting by individuals, as opposed to vote fraud—systematic attempts to steal an election by an organized group of partisans. This emphasis on voter fraud has convinced eight states to pass laws requiring voters to present official photo identification in order to cast a ballot—laws that studies have shown suppress Democratic turnout among voters who are poor, black, Latino, Asian-American, or disabled.
Understanding that one way to win closely contested elections is to keep Democratic voters away from the polls, the Republican Party has tried to stoke public fears of voter fraud. On Feb. 15, 2005, the US Senate Republican Policy Committee issued a report, Putting an End to Voter Fraud, which said, “Voter fraud continues to plague our nation’s federal elections, diluting and canceling out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans.” To remedy the situation, the Senate Republicans advised Congress to “require that voters at the polls show photo identification.”
But voting experts maintain that voter fraud is not a national problem. In March, Lorraine C. Minnite, a professor of political science at Columbia University, released The Politics of Voter Fraud, a report she prepared for Project Vote, an advocacy group based in Arkansas. She writes:
“The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud. It is being used to persuade the public that deceitful and criminal voters are manipulating the electoral system. The exaggerated fear of voter fraud has a long history of scuttling efforts to make voting easier and more inclusive, especially for marginalized groups in American society. With renewed partisan vigor, fantasies of fraud are being spun again to undo some of the progress America has made lowering barriers to vote.”
This is borne out by a study from the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, which found that in the 2004 election, voters in states that required documentation of identity were 2.7 percent less likely to vote than voters in states where documentation was not required. Specifically, the study, commissioned by the US Election Assistance Commission, found that Latinos were 10 percent less likely to vote, Asian-Americans 8.5 percent less likely to vote, and blacks 5.7 percent less likely to vote.
What’s more, despite GOP claims to the contrary, voter fraud is a very rare occurrence. In 2002 the Justice Department established the Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative to ferret out fraudulent voters. On October 4, 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, with great fanfare, proclaimed, “We’ve made enforcement of election fraud and corrupting offenses a top priority.” Yet according to an April 12 New York Times article, only 120 people have been charged with the crime over the past five years, leading to 86 convictions. Furthermore, the Times noted, federal attorneys say that most of the transgressions have been mistakes by immigrants and felons who simply misunderstood eligibility requirements.
The extent of voter fraud is further complicated by the fact that earlier this year the Election Assistance Commission changed the conclusions of a report it had commissioned. The original report by outside election experts concluded, “There is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling-place fraud.” The commission deleted that sentence and replaced it with, “There is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.”
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the commission, is disturbed by this apparently politically motivated substitution. “This possibly could be another Watergate,” he argued. “We have to ask the questions: ‘Why was this report doctored?’ and ‘How does this play into the larger picture of voter suppression and intimidation?’ By directing public attention to voter fraud, you divert attention from the fact that Americans in certain communities are not able to cast their votes properly and that their votes are not being counted. Is this something that this small, new agency thought of by themselves or did they get marching orders from somewhere else, perhaps as far up as the White House?”