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Don’t Believe the Hype | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Don’t Believe the Hype

In February 2005, a GOP Policy Committee report asserted that "voter fraud continues to plague our nation's federal elections, diluting and canceling out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans." No evidence or research was offered in support of this dramatic claim, and the facts tell a far different story.

As a new report by Project Vote makes clear, the above statement typifies the intentionally confusing rhetoric employed by those who oppose efforts to expand voting participation in our democracy. "The Politics of Voter Fraud" offers a thorough examination of the real (and rare) occurrences of voter fraud while exploring the exploitation of public fears about fraud by those who wish to maintain the status quo.

Between 2002 and 2005, 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting at the federal level – an average of eight people per year. Those who buy into the voter fraud hype suggest that there are so few cases due to the difficulty of prosecution. But the Department of Justice manual on election crimes states that "there are several reasons why election crime prosecutions may present an easier means of obtaining convictions than do other forms of public corruption," including that the crimes occur in public, "often involve many players," and "tend to leave a paper trail."

Yet despite scant evidence of real fraud, every election – especially close elections in recent years – brings charges of illegal voting, illegal voter registration and the like. Offering an explanation, the Project Vote report notes that just as the Democratic Party felt threatened by an influx of new African-American voters in the late 19th century and responded by erecting stricter registration rules to "protect our democracy," so too are Republicans now resurrecting baseless fraud allegations to make voting more difficult through the use of restrictive ID requirements.

And, just as in the past, those on the losing end are "the marginalized and formerly disenfranchised, urban dwellers, immigrants, blacks, and lower status voters."

In 2004, approximately 8.5 percent of all registered voters had registered through voter registration drives. The success of these drives "has made them a target for fraud allegations." But between 2002 and 2005 the federal government "prosecuted just 33 people for various misdemeanor and felony crimes related to any form of election fraud that could have involved voter registration…. Only two people were prosecuted for crimes related to… voter registration applications for other people…"

But facts be damned, charges of widespread fraud committed by small "d" democratic groups persist. A case in point relates to the good work of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) – the largest community-based organization of low- and moderate-income people in the nation.

ACORN has been highly effective in voter registration drives and ballot initiatives but it was unfairly tainted recently when conservative news outlets and right-wing bloggers widely circulated allegations by a fired employee. When a staffer was fired for suspicion of an illegal check cashing scheme, he filed a whistle blower lawsuit alleging that ACORN was withholding Republican registration cards, registering ineligible felons, selling voter lists for profit, and "knowingly [submitting] thousands of invalid registration cards." The right-wing media made it a big story but then ACORN countersued the former employee for defamation and libel. Not only was the individual's case dismissed by a federal judge but ACORN won its defamation case. However the ending to this story received far less attention than the initial trumped-up charges, and ACORN opponents continue to claim that the organization is engaged in voter fraud – even citing the bogus case described above.

There are plenty of real and pressing issues with our voting process that urgently need addressing: registration problems stemming from overwhelmed state and local bureaucracies; a lack of uniform voting standards; electronic voting without a paper trail; partisan election officials…. The voter fraud hype not only distracts our attention from needed reforms, but it does the same thing it has always done – helps those who would stand in the way of every citizen's right to vote.

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