As President Obama spoke about Representative Paul Ryan’s budget yesterday, Fox News broke away from the president’s remarks to cover “a stunning case in South Bend, Indiana.” The story covered an indictment by the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office alleging that local Democratic officials forged signatures to get Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards on the Indiana Democratic Primary ballot in 2008. “Indiana State Police investigators identified a total of 22 petitions that appeared to be faked, yet sailed through the Voter Registration Board as legitimate documents,” Fox reported. Eric Shawn, of the Fox News Voter Fraud Unit, said that a local election worker was “ordered to forge presidential petitions for Barack Obama, illegally faking the names and signatures of unsuspecting voters to put the then-Illinois senator on the presidential primary ballot.”
The new report will no doubt underscore the belief among Fox News viewers that Obama was illegitimately elected in 2008. According to a 2009 poll by Public Policy Polling, “52% majority of GOP voters nationally think that ACORN stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama last year, with only 27% granting that he won it legitimately.” Conservative commenters are pointing to the indictment as further proof of rampant voter fraud and more evidence of the need for voter ID laws nationwide.
There are at least two major problems with this argument.
Number one: there’s no evidence that the alleged forgeries played a decisive role in getting the Democratic candidates on the Indiana ballot in 2008 or determining the outcome of the primary or general election. “No one could seriously argue there wasn’t enough popular support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to justify their appearance on the primary ballot, or that it had any effect on the primary results, or any vaguely remote effect on the general election,” writes Ed Kilgore of The Washington Monthly. “So maybe this was ‘election fraud’ in the broadest sense of the term, but hardly ‘voter fraud.’”
Number two: Indiana’s voter ID law, passed in 2008 and the model for the nine states that have adopted similar laws since the 2010 election, did nothing to prevent the alleged signature fraud, nor did it stop Indiana’s Republican Secretary of State, Charlie White, from committing felony voter fraud in the 2010 election. (White was sentenced to a year of home detention on felony fraud convictions.)
Indeed, the Indiana indictment reinforces how thin the conservative case about voter fraud really is and why voter ID laws are a misguided solution to a miniscule problem. As I reported in Rolling Stone last fall:
A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, quantified the problem in stark terms. "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning," the report calculated, "than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."
More recently, Steve Benen of Maddow Blog notes that “Texas recently went looking for examples of voter fraud and found fewer than five incidents of ‘illegal voting’ out of more than 13 million votes cast in the 2008 and 2010 elections.” Concludes Benen, after examining the Indiana indictment: “the takeaway here is that real examples of fraud are incredibly rare.”
Indeed, between 2000 and 2007, there were 32,299 UFO sightings in the United States, 352 deaths caused by lightning, but only nine cases of voter impersonation, according to a great new infographic by Craiglist founder Craig Newmark.
Yet conservatives continue to hype the extremely rare occurrence of election fraud as if it were something that happens every day and is somehow responsible for the election of Obama and Democratic candidates across the map. And there is evidence that they’ve been successful in pushing this fact-free narrative among the broader public. In 2009, Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin of Occidental College studied the media coverage of ACORN during the 2008 election and concluded:
82.8% of the stories failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare
80.3% of the stories failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law
85.1% of the stories about ACORN failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems
95.8% of the stories failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of "voter fraud" to dampen voting by low‐income and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter-fraud accusations—firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
The real story in 2012 is how the myth of voter fraud has been advanced by Republicans to justify new voting restrictions in more than a dozen states, which could disenfranchise up to 5 million voters on Election Day, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. That’s a whole lot of casualties in response to a few bad actors.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, out now in paperback.