Voter ID Laws Are Not About Vote Integrity

The myth of voter fraud just won’t die.

The debate has existed on the fringe of the political discourse for quite some time, but reclaimed center stage during last year’s campaign when then-candidate Donald Trump asserted — on Twitter, naturally — that there was “large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.” You would think Trump might have backed off that claim in the wake of his election victory; alas, so fragile is his ego that he repeated it after he won as a way to explain his losing the popular vote.

Ever eager to carry the Commander-in-Chief’s water (as long as he’s a Republican), Trump’s pals over at Fox News lent additional credence to his argument. On June 20th, “Fox and Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt referenced an article in the Washington Times — also a conservative outlet — and said, “5.7 million – that’s how many illegal immigrants might have voted in the last election.” Clearly, then, voter fraud is a massive problem in the United States, and we need to do something about it.

Unfortunately, no legitimate data backs this up.

The study that Trump continues to cite is from 2014 and claims that up to 14% of registered voters may be non-citizens. However, that study was roundly criticized and its methodology disputed; a 2015 peer review of the study is pointedly titled “The perils of cherry picking low frequency events in large sample surveys.”

If you don’t feel like reading the study, here’s a quick overview: the researchers used data from a Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) in which 19,533 respondents were surveyed. As the Washington Post notes, “the assumption that non-citizens, who volunteered to take online surveys administered in English about American politics, would somehow be representative of the entire non-citizen population seems tenuous at best.”

Adding to that is the fact that in the study used, nearly 20% of the respondents mistakenly marked themselves as non-citizens in 2010, only to correct it in 2012. And when it comes down to it, the authors of the debunked study were only able to validate the votes of five respondents who claimed to be non-citizen voters in the 2008 CCES. Put more simply, the number could be 20%, which would be a genuine national crisis…or it could be 0%.

Fortunately for us, there are more than 20 studies on this very same topic, all of which suggest that the actual incidence of voter fraud is effectively 0%. From 2000 to 2014, researchers studied votes and election results; out of over 1 billion ballots cast, there were 31 credible claims of voter impersonation fraud. Not convictions, mind you; just credible claims. Which would put the instance of voter fraud at a whopping 0.0000031%.

So why are conservatives so concerned about a problem that doesn’t exist? Because it allows them to propose solutions — conveniently enough, the kind of solutions that will just so happen to give the GOP an unfair advantage in all future elections.

The solutions offered by Republicans seem innocent enough: everybody should have to display photo ID at the polls. In some states, that’s not required, which sounds shocking until you remember that in order to register to vote, you have to have a license or government-issued ID and a social security number so the state can verify your identity.

Think about it this way: if someone wanted to commit voter fraud in, say, California, they would need to figure out which district they wanted to vote in, find out the name of a voter in that particular district, find that district’s polling place, go to that district’s polling place, and falsely give that person’s name (and hope that person hasn’t already voted)…all to cast one vote. This is partially why in-person voter fraud is so uncommon: it would be a colossal effort and a huge risk with a statistically-insignificant return.

To give you another example, in Texas, voters have to show one of 7 forms of ID: license, personal ID, a handgun license (of course), military ID, a citizenship certificate or passport. But in the majority of cases, the people least likely to have one of these forms of ID are poor (and disproportionately people of color). Let’s look at these forms of ID.

If you don’t drive, you don’t have any need for a license, so you won’t have one. Passports cost $80, which is a lot to spend on something that, if you’re truly impoverished, you’re unlikely to need for any reason. Citizenship certificates are even more expensive: at a minimum, you’re looking at $555 for a replacement form (and more than double that for a new one). If you haven’t served in the military or don’t own a handgun, those are out. And while Texas does offer state IDs free of charge, a birth certificate is often required to obtain them. Unfortunately, in the rural south, there is still a generation of people of color who weren’t born in hospitals and, as a result, don’t have a birth certificate.

Even if these voters were issued a birth certificate, some can’t afford the cost of obtaining another one. In 2013, a grandmother in Texas showed up to the polls with three forms of identification; unfortunately, they weren’t the right kinds of ID. And, since she couldn’t afford the $25 fee to purchase a copy of her birth certificate, she wasn’t able to vote. Wrong kind of ID; wrong kind of voter.

The voter fraud debate is, simply put, a solution in search of a problem. And the courts agree: the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas’ photo ID law was racially discriminatory, noting that over the course of the decade before Texas passed the law, there were “only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast.”

The Fourth Circuit struck down North Carolina’s voter ID laws for the same reason; in their opinion, they made sure to note that the state “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina.” Not only that, but the court ruled that the law (emphasis mine): “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision by using data on the most common forms of ID by different races to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African-Americans. The bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.”

The man Trump has tasked with solving this problem is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who once claimed he knew of 100 cases of voter fraud in Kansas alone in order to receive special power to prosecute voter fraud. Once that power was granted, Kobach brought six cases (four of which resulted in convictions). Kobach also testified that he reviewed 84 million votes cast in 22 states, and his investigation found 14 instances of fraud (a 0.00000017% fraud rate, for those keeping track at home).

Again: the self-appointed Elliot Ness of voter fraud, a man who was actively looking for it, somehow managed to find fewer instances of voter fraud than studies suggest.

Voter ID laws are not about ensuring fair and free elections for all. Along with the GOP’s gerrymandering efforts, voter ID laws are an effort to suppress the votes of people who don’t vote Republican, under the false pretense of a threat to the very foundation of American democracy.

If you’re worried about the integrity of the vote, I suggest you start with them.

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