Written By: John Fund
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of AMAC Magazine.
The media tends to report on the voter fraud debate by covering two extreme views: that voter fraud is either rampant everywhere or that it almost never happens.
On the one hand, the media reports claims by President Trump that he would have won the popular vote in 2016 were it not for three to five million votes being cast illegally. There is no available evidence supporting that high a number, and Trump’s other exaggerations on the issue certainly don’t help the quality of the debate.
But the media also goes out of its way to dismiss genuine concerns about the integrity of our elections. The New York Times’s Glenn Thrush once declared, for example, that “there is essentially no voter fraud in this country.” Then, when shown example after example of genuine fraud, the media yawns and quotes experts saying it’s not widespread.
But that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of elections. You don’t need “widespread” voter fraud to change election outcomes, just small-scale efforts targeted on tight or consequential elections.
Take Al Franken’s 2008 victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota. After Franken was sworn in, a watchdog group matched criminal records with the voting rolls and discovered that 1,099 felons had cast ballots illegally. A local TV news reporter found that nine out of 10 felons he interviewed had voted for Franken. State law allows prosecutions only of those who admit knowingly committing voter fraud, and 177 were convicted. Franken’s margin of victory was just 312 votes. It gave Democrats their 60th Senate seat, creating the filibuster-proof majority that made Obamacare law. It wouldn’t have passed as is without Franken’s vote. That’s fraud that had real consequences for our country.
Those who say voter fraud is no big deal should realize something. We have two key civil rights in this country when it comes to voting. We must make sure people aren’t blocked from voting, as our Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures. But equally importantly, we must ensure that no one’s vote is canceled out by someone voting twice, a non-citizen, a felon who hasn’t had their voting rights restored or someone who doesn’t even exist. That kind of disenfranchisement breeds cynicism and reduces voter confidence in our democracy in the same way that poll taxes and other barriers to voting used to.
The general public instinctively understands this, which is why they support common-sense measures to preserve the integrity of our elections. In 2016, a Gallup poll reported that 80% of those surveyed backed voter ID laws that would require people to prove that they are who they say they are when they vote in person or cast absentee ballots. The breakdown by party is overwhelmingly favorable: 95% of Republicans, 83% of Independents, and 63% of Democrats favor voter ID. A full 77% of minority voters back voter ID laws, despite opposition by many groups that purport to speak for them.
The myth that voter ID is a new Jim Crow-type effort to reduce minority voting is widely rejected for the rubbish that it is—except by academia and the glitterati of the mainstream media. Across the country, election laws requiring voter identification exist—with some variation—in 34 states.
But some of the states without any voter ID laws or other measures to prevent fraud are among the nation’s biggest, including New York, California, and Pennsylvania. They would benefit from properly drafted voter ID laws, with safeguards against absentee-ballot fraud and strict limits on laws that allow people to register and vote on Election Day.
Even though in-person voter fraud isn’t rampant, it is easy for fraudsters to commit it without getting caught. It’s almost the perfect crime, undetectable unless someone confesses to it.
In 2013, New York City’s Department of Investigation detailed how its undercover agents claimed at 63 polling places to be individuals who were in fact dead, had moved out of town, or were in jail. In 61 instances, 97% of the time, they were allowed to vote. (To avoid skewing results, they voted only for nonexistent write-in candidates.) How did the city’s Board of Elections respond? Did it immediately probe and reform sloppy procedures? Not at all. It instead demanded that the investigators be prosecuted. Most officials don’t want to admit how vulnerable election systems are, but privately, they express worry that close elections could be flipped by fraud.
The chaotic state of our voter-registration rolls makes it easier for political operatives in a close vote to round up folks for some last-minute shenanigans, as in a notable voter-fraud case in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2016. That city’s aging black political machine used absentee-ballot fraud to steal a Democratic primary for state legislator away from 31-year-old Black Lives Matter activist Bruce Franks, Jr. In September of that year, a local judge called a new primary election after hundreds of absentee ballots were found to have been cast improperly. Franks went on to win the new election—in the same district, with the same electorate—with 71% of the vote.
Our election officials have known for a long time that America’s voter-registration lists are breeding grounds for potential fraud. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, one out of eight American voter registrations is inaccurate, out of date, or a duplicate. Some 2.8 million people are registered in two or more states, and 1.8 million registered voters are dead. Even though that’s a rich vein of potential mischief for fraudsters, the Obama administration didn’t file a single lawsuit in eight years to demand that counties clean up their voter rolls, as they are required to do by the 1993 federal “Motor Voter” law. In 2009, three Justice Department staffers heard Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandez say that the DOJ would not be enforcing that provision of the Motor Voter law because it ran counter to the law’s overall goal of “increasing turnout.”
That attitude helps to explain why liberals use such hysterical attacks on voter integrity measures. Some liberals are mistakenly convinced that voter ID laws and other measures to buttress the integrity of elections are discriminatory, even though minority turnout has gone up in states that have adopted voter ID. Many also say fraud isn’t a serious issue. Rather than fighting such laws, however, they should be working to ensure that everyone can easily obtain an ID.
There is sharp disagreement over how many people lack proper identification. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who is himself black, pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that “one of the most often-cited factoids—something that sounds authoritative but is not fact-based—is the NAACP’s claim that 25% of black American adults lack a government-issued photo ID. Think about that for a moment. This would mean that millions of African-American men and women are unable to legally drive, cash a check, board an airliner or participate in everyday activities of modern life.” Hyperbole of this sort perpetuates the patronizing view that minorities are helpless victims. Liberals say Blackwell doesn’t understand how high the barriers are for some people who lack ID. But if he were really wrong, it is difficult to see why so few voters apply for a free ID in states with such requirements.
No matter how many people lack voter ID, we should not be fighting over the issue in court, but rather spending our resources on getting ID in the hands of those who don’t have one. The stalemate can be broken. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have endorsed the idea of adding a picture ID to Social Security cards. Carter said he would “support the idea in a New York minute.” Clinton said, “The idea behind this agreement is to find a way forward that eliminates error and makes the best possible decision that we can all live with.”
The two former presidents were joined by Andrew Young, former UN ambassador and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr. Young says voter ID isn’t a symbol of discrimination but a “freedom card,” an extension of President Johnson’s efforts to elevate the poor and disadvantaged. “In today’s world, you can’t board an airplane or get into most buildings or cash a check without predatory fees [ . . . ] without a photo ID,” Young said in 2007. “Ensuring people have one allows them to enter the mainstream of American life and would be a help to them.”
Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader, adds, “My father used to talk about ending the silence of good people. I cannot emphasize enough the positive impact a free and easy-to-obtain photo ID will have for those who are marginalized.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Republicans also see promise in a photo ID Social Security card. “This would help tone down the debate over who is trying to manipulate the system and actually get real ID into the hands of whoever doesn’t have one—something we should all agree on,” said Don Palmer, a former secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections who is now a member of the Federal Election Assistance Commission.
But in 2014, when Young and King brought the idea to the Obama White House, it was vetoed by Attorney General Eric Holder and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who exercised great influence over administration policy.
Liberals need to be called out on their efforts to block election-integrity efforts. When they claim that there is no voter fraud, to borrow Shakespeare’s words, thou doth protest too much.
Some honest Democrats continue to challenge their party and support genuine efforts to clean up elections. Rhode Island Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, a Democrat, persuaded his state’s left-leaning legislature to pass a photo ID bill in 2011 to address problems of voter fraud in Providence and other cities. It included extensive outreach efforts, with members of Mollis’s office going to senior centers, homeless shelters and community centers to process free IDs. The law has been implemented smoothly, Mollis says, and he views it as a national model.
“When the day is done, my job is to maintain the integrity of elections,” he told me. “Even if a state doesn’t have an immediate problem with fraud, doesn’t it make sense to take sensible precautions rather than wait for someone to abuse the system, and then it’s too late?”
John Fund is a columnist with National Review magazine. He is the co-author with Hans von Spakovsky of “Who’s Counting: How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Steal Your Vote.”