Is Voter Fraud a Fraud?

For all the talk about the need for voter-identification laws, you’d think millions of Americans were impersonating dead people to get their candidates elected, or casting multiple ballots after breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Not even close.

Voter fraud—the foundational premise for controversial new voter-ID laws—is far more rare in the U.S. than ID proponents would have us believe. The Department of Justice doesn’t even compile figures of how many people have been convicted of fraud in the last decade, and says prosecutions have focused on tampering by election officials and local politicians, not on voters themselves. A New York Timesinvestigation found that between 2002 and 2005 only 96 people were indicted for federal election-related crimes, and 70 of them were convicted. Of those, 41 were campaign employees and government officials, and just five were voters who cast multiple ballots.

Yet impersonation is the only type of election crime that strict new voter-identification laws can actually prevent. Since 2011, 10 states have passed such laws, which typically require people to show a photo ID when they vote. Before the 2010 interim elections, only two states—Indiana and Georgia—had voter ID laws on the books.  

Lee Rowland, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, says the public’s confidence in their democracy is “undermined” by these laws. “The real fraud,” she says, “is the extent to which fake stories about supposed fraud have been used to justify restrictive voter-ID laws.”

According to the center, new photo-ID laws passed in the last legislative cycle since 2010 will make it more difficult for about 5 million Americans to vote. More than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo ID now necessary for voting in states like Florida and Pennsylvania (PDF).

The question is who benefits if these people don’t—or can’t—vote. “It’s no coincidence that these laws are almost completely passed by Republicans,” says Tova Wang, a Senior Democracy Fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan policy think tank in New York. That’s because voters without photo ID tend to be young people, the elderly, and minority populations, particularly African-Americans, who tend to vote Democratic.