That is, if you believe the rhetoric coming from (mostly) Republicans politicians like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and North Carolina’s own Pat McCrory. Abbott, McCrory, and others believe that voter fraud—a term describing any illegal means to skew votes in an election—is a serious issue affecting the very foundation of our democratic government. To prevent this calamity, they advocate for laws mandating each citizen carry voter identification cards, a policy in the books in thirty states. Supporting his attempts to pass voter ID legislation in his recent North Carolina gubernatorial debate with attorney general Roy Cooper, McCrory said, “If you don’t believe there’s a potential for voter fraud, you got your head in the sand.” Moreover, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stoked fears of fraud at the polls, telling crowds of his supporters “… [it is] so important that you get out and vote. So important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us.” Surely, these politician’s concerns must be genuine, and supported by facts pointing to widespread voter fraud.
Except for one thing—voter fraud is not an issue in American elections. When Greg Abbott said, “The fact is voter fraud is rampant,” Politifact rated the claim as “Pants on Fire” false – meaning it was a ridiculous and baseless statement. Politifact found that issues of voter fraud are extremely aware—in Texas, the incidence rate of voter fraud was found to be about 1 in 18 million. Across the entire country, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law finds voter fraud to be “extraordinarily rare”. Additionally, a New York Times article from 2007 reported that after a five year effort by the Bush administration to crack down on voter fraud, the Department of Justice found virtually no evidence of voter fraud, much less illegal activity that would actually affect an election. Any “voter fraud” crimes committed, according to these three sources, is most often done by immigrants making simple mistakes on voter registration applications.
Nevertheless, the myth of voter fraud remains powerful. How can such a blatant misperception have enough influence to lead to the passage of voter ID laws as an antidote to the problem in thirty states? A few reasons exist. First, the 1960 Presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shrouded in allegations of voter fraud, became an enduring myth in the American psyche. Therefore, the media often finds headlines alleging voter fraud bring in more readers, contributing to the mass paranoia. Another reason could be partisan—increasingly, Republicans and Democrats think the other party is intentionally subverting the electoral process to remain in power. Finally, there is the possibility that politicians exploit the myth of voter fraud—more on that in a bit.
Despite voter fraud’s actual insignificance, the reaction to the myth in the form of voter ID laws and “poll-watching” have incredibly serious consequences. Voter ID laws have often been found to be discriminatory towards minority voters. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found Governor Pat McCrory’s voter identification law to have “discriminatory intent” in a ruling from July. Analysis of research done by the North Carolina state government before the passage of the bill indicates that McCrory’s legislation intended to disenfranchise the poor, elderly, and African-American, and specifically exclude Democrats from voting. Research from the American Civil Liberties Union clarifies exactly how voter ID laws discriminate against specific groups:
1. There is no demonstrated need for the law.
2. Fees to purchase ID cards can be unaffordable for many Americans—and if they are unable to pay, the cost is shifted to taxpayers, an inefficient use of taxpayer money.
3. Approximately 21 million Americans do not have government-issued identification, including many African-Americans and elderly Americans—preventing them from exercising the right to vote.
4. More barriers to voting simply make it easier to violate another’s Constitutional rights.
The use of state power to address a problem that doesn’t exist thus proves problematic for the preservation of American liberties, especially of historically oppressed populations.
Furthermore, fear-mongering from politicians like Donald Trump is uniquely dangerous to American democracy. Trump utilizes the voter fraud myth to create distrust of the American political system, leading to a potential situation where many of his supporters would not accept Hillary Clinton as a legitimate President—a result unparalleled in American history. He also encourages his supporters to intimidate and prevent “fraudulent voters” from voting—eerily reminiscent of efforts to restrict voting rights in the Jim Crow South. If the basic feature of our democracy—elections—can no longer be trusted, it surely leads to the collapse of any notion of an “American” state.
Within the context of the American South’s difficult history, actions from elected officials like Governor McCrory are exceedingly worrisome. Continued efforts to curtail voting rights should concern every American, and this issue is likely to play a significant role in the minds of voters as they go to the polls on November 8th. Regardless, the evidence is clear: if you believe in organized efforts by voters to cast deceptive ballots, you are only deceiving yourself.