With the coronavirus death toll surpassing 25,000 and 95 percent of Americans under a stay-at-home order, state and local election officials are wisely looking to expand vote-by-mail for the remaining primaries and the November general election. As a complement to early and Election Day in-person voting, mail voting is a commonsense solution to ensure that voters can cast a ballot that counts while keeping themselves and their communities safe. This is particularly important for Black and brown Americans, who are suffering illness and death due to COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates.
Trump’s claims are false.
President Trump, however, has launched an offensive against mail voting, calling it “corrupt” and warning of “voter fraud.” He has urged Republicans to “fight very hard” against expanding its availability, even though Trump himself votes by mail and even as the Republican National Committee (RNC) encourages Republican voters in swing states to vote by mail, calling it “easy, convenient, and secure.”
Trump’s claims are false. Fraud by impersonating someone else, knowingly voting while ineligible, or casting multiple ballots is exceedingly rare—“infinitesimal,” according to an in-depth analysis of elections from 2000 to 2012.
The truth is that the specter of voter fraud has long been a pretext for voter suppression. It is a talking point, devoid of any meaningful evidentiary basis, deployed to silence the voices of Black and brown voters across the country. For decades, self-interested politicians have invoked voter fraud to restrict access to the vote in order to grab or cling to power in the face of an increasingly multi-racial electorate. This dynamic can be seen in virtually every area of the voting process.
Restrictions on Voter Registration
Voter registration rules have long been used to prevent Black and brown people from voting, and the legacy of this suppression is that voters of color remain disproportionately unregistered to vote. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), which required states to provide voter registration services at motor vehicle and public assistance agencies, was a major step forward.
In 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, requiring voters to present documentary proof of citizenship (DPOC) when registering to vote or voting. Though its stated purpose was to combat voter fraud, Prop 200 was an anti-immigrant law that prevented thousands of Latinx citizens from registering to vote before the Supreme Court struck it down. In 2013, Kansas enacted its own DPOC statute, preventing 35,000 people from registering to vote over the next 3 years. In unsuccessfully defending the law as necessary to prevent fraud, the state put on an expert witness whose methodology to identify noncitizens consisted of looking through the voter rolls for names that sounded “foreign.”
Just last year, under the guise of “election integrity,” Tennessee passed a law making it harder for civic groups to conduct third-party voter registration, and criminalizing any groups that didn’t meet strict requirements or made honest mistakes. Such community-led voter registration efforts remain critical for registering voters of color and other marginalized communities, who are less often reached out to by political parties, and who may be less likely to transact at government offices where people register to vote. The law was quickly blocked by a federal judge after plaintiffs alleged it would hamper the registration efforts of Black and brown communities; the judge agreed, finding the law would have a “chilling effect” on voter registration in the state.
Texas in 2019 moved to purge nearly 100,000 Texans from its rolls[.] Demos and our partners sued and stopped the purge.
Claims of voter fraud have been used repeatedly to purge eligible voters—often predominantly voters of color—from the voter rolls. Texas in 2019 moved to purge nearly 100,000 Texans from its rolls after falsely identifying them as non-citizens. President Trump amplified the false claim, taking to Twitter to assert that 58,000 non-citizens had voted in Texas. The state announced that individuals would receive a letter demanding they submit documentation of citizenship within 30 days or else be removed from the rolls. Demos and our partners successfully sued and stopped the purge.
Texas’ gambit was a copycat of a 2012 scheme in Florida. There, in a program the Secretary of State dubbed “Project Integrity,” the state falsely claimed that 180,000 people on the rolls were noncitizens and had to be removed. A federal court ruled that the impending purge violated federal law, and ultimately a mere 85 people were taken off the rolls.
Meanwhile, conservative private organizations are deploying a national strategy of advocacy and litigation to shrink the voter rolls—typically targeting close-margin counties and states with high numbers of voters of color. For example, the right-wing Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) published 2 erroneous, misleading reports alleging that hundreds of non-citizens registered and cast ballots in Virginia elections in 2008 and 2012. PILF published the names, phone numbers, addresses, and Social Security numbers of the Virginians it falsely accused of felonies. A defamation lawsuit ultimately forced the organization to apologize and to remove these citizens’ names and personal information from its reports, but the effort nonetheless had the impact of intimidating Black and brown voters.
These organizations have filed lawsuits to pressure states to purge their voter rolls. In 2017, Demos intervened in a case that the conservative American Civil Rights Union brought against Broward County, Florida, alleging that the county had more people on the rolls than it had living voters. We prevailed at trial—with the judge concluding that ACRU’s evidence was “misleading” and its claims were “unsupported by any credible evidence”—and again on appeal.
Voter ID laws serve to suppress the vote of Black and brown communities.
Despite the reality that in-person voter fraud at the polls is practically nonexistent—one study found a mere 31 incidents out of a billion votes cast—proponents of strict photo ID continue to insist it is necessary to preserve the integrity of our elections. In fact, these voter ID laws serve to suppress the vote of Black and brown communities. There is strong evidence that this racial vote suppression is intentional, such as when a North Carolina precinct chairman for the GOP said of a proposed photo ID bill, “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.” After Texas passed one of the strictest ID laws in the country, a federal court found that 600,000 Texans would be turned away from the polls because they did not have one of the few types of acceptable ID, that those people were disproportionately Black and Latinx, and that the ID law was intentionally discriminatory and a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite their discriminatory and suppressive effect, 36 states now have some form of voter ID on the books.
Vote caging refers to the partisan practice of sending non-forwardable mail to voters in a target area, creating a list of the individuals for whom the mail was returned undeliverable, and using that list in the lead-up to an election or at the polls on Election Day to challenge voters as ineligible on the grounds that they do not live in the jurisdiction.
In 1962, Republicans in Arizona sent an “Army of Challengers” into predominantly Black and brown precincts.
As Tova Wang explained in her book The Politics of Voter Suppression, in 1962 Republicans in Arizona sent an “Army of Challengers” into predominantly Black and brown precincts to challenge voters using these lists, often in combination with brazen literacy tests. The goal was to prevent individuals from voting, either through a successful challenge, by intimidating them, or by frustrating them with delays in the process and long lines and wait times.
Arizona in 1962 turned out to be only a dress rehearsal for a national strategy to elect presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a scheme dubbed “Operation Eagle Eye.” Republicans sent 1.8 million pieces of mail to voters and deployed poll watchers to 35 cities, targeting communities of color where support for Democrats ran high. The national director of the program stated he expected the efforts to prevent 1.25 million people from voting.
The RNC used vote-caging and hired off-duty police officers to target Black and Latinx voters in 1981.
The RNC again used vote-caging to target Black and Latinx voters during the 1981 gubernatorial race in New Jersey, compiling a list of 45,000 voters to challenge. The party also hired off-duty police officers to patrol polling locations in Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Newark and Trenton. They wore armbands that read “National Ballot Security Task Force,” carried two-way radios and sometimes firearms, and posted signs announcing their presence and stating “it is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.” They even offered a $1,000 reward for any “information leading to arrest and conviction of persons violating New Jersey election law.”
The Democratic National Committee sued, alleging racial discrimination under the Voting Rights Act, and negotiated a consent decree prohibiting the RNC from “undertaking any ballot security activities in polling places or election districts where the racial or ethnic composition of such districts is a factor” in the selection of those districts. The decree was tested again and again—including in Louisiana in 1986, where a Republican official explained that vote caging “could keep the black vote down considerably,” and in North Carolina in 1990, where the Republican Party sent postcards with intimidating and false statements to Black voters.
Organizations like True the Vote have trained volunteers to show up at polls and make the experience of voting like “driving and seeing the police following you.”
The myth of widespread voter fraud has been used to justify challenging and intimating voters of color in recent years, as well. As documented in the Demos and Common Cause report Bullies at the Ballot Box, organizations like True the Vote have trained volunteers to show up at polls and make the experience of voting like “driving and seeing the police following you.”
Prosecutions of unintentional voter fraud have also been employed to deter Black and brown voters from exercising the fundamental right to vote and thus build political power. For example, Crystal Mason, a Black woman and mother of 3, went to the polls in 2016 to fulfill her civic duty and make her voice heard by voting—unaware she was ineligible because she was on federal supervised release. No one had ever informed her that her federal release status would impact her eligibility. The poll worker she encountered told her to vote by provisional ballot, the mechanism Congress created in 2002 for people who show up to vote but find they are not on the rolls. The system worked, and her vote didn’t count. But Texas prosecuted her for voter fraud anyway. She was sentenced to 5 years in the state penitentiary.
Charges have been brought against Black and Latinx individuals for registering to vote, casting ballots, or helping others to vote without the intent to violate the law in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere. These prosecutions appear designed to intimidate. They send the message that voting is dangerous and may not be worth the risk.
Vote By Mail
Time and again, voter fraud has been used as a pretext to make it harder for Black and brown voters to participate in American democracy. Now the same canard is being used to undermine vote-by-mail.
We need only look to last week’s disastrous election in Wisconsin to understand the critical need for vote-by-mail in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. When the Supreme Court intervened and ordered that mail ballots had to be postmarked by April 7 to count—even though thousands of people would not have received their absentee ballots by then—Black voters were forced to wait in long lines in Milwaukee to cast a vote in person, risking their health and potentially their lives to have their say. The next day, as calls for vote-by-mail increased, President Trump inveighed against the reform, raising the specter of fraud and observing, “it doesn’t work out for well for Republicans.”
The public must reject this dangerous, misleading narrative. Vote-by-mail is a critical component of protecting Black and brown voters, and all Americans, in 2020 and beyond.