Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Could it be? A real-life case of vote fraud?

Well, there it is: A probable case of attempted, systematic voting fraud, right here in metro Atlanta.

Of course, it's not the type of voting fraud that might be thwarted through strict voter-ID laws. Even without such laws, that particular type of voting fraud remains extremely rare and isolated. Instead, this type of scam involves an effort to cheat eligible citizens of their constitutional right to vote and take part in our democracy.

According to a memo sent this week to students by Michael Sanseviro, dean of students at Kennesaw State University, "unauthorized individuals are walking around with clipboards claiming they are registering students to vote. Some of these unauthorized individuals are targeting particular student populations," specifically black students. The goal appears to be to falsely convince these students that they have been  registered to vote. Then, when they appear at their voting precincts in November, ready to cast their ballots they discover that no registration was turned in to state officials and they are ineligible to participate.

"If you or anybody you know completed a form for one of those unauthorized individuals, please complete a NEW voter registration online at kennesaw.turbovote.org or visit vote.kennesaw.edu," Sanseviro warned in his memo. "We have had students in the past not be able to vote on election day because they completed a form with an unauthorized person and were never properly registered."

If so, that's a pretty insidious little scam, but let's be honest: It differs only in scale and audacity to the years-long, highly orchestrated effort by the Republican Party to try to win elections by suppressing valid turnout of minorities and the young through strict voter-ID and other legal restrictions.

I know I know: To hear conservatives tell it, voter impersonation is so prevalent that it throws the very basis of our electoral system into doubt unless it is addressed. The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence that such a claim is true. Study after study after study has proved that actual cases of in-person voting fraud are extremely rare to the point that they are almost non-existent, and certainly pose no threat to the integrity of the system.

A Loyola University study, for example, documented a total of 31 credible but unproved allegations of in-person voting fraud anywhere in the country between 2000 and 2014. That's 31 possibly tainted votes out of a billion votes cast over that time frame.

To combat such statistical research, conservatives have relied almost exclusively on anecdotal reports. For example, in order to refute the claim "that voter fraud is a myth, a charade meant to justify repressive voting laws," the Heritage Foundation has compiled a database of vote-fraud cases that covers all 50 states and reaches back more than 20 years.

As the group brags, "Heritage’s voter fraud database catalogues over 400 examples of individuals convicted of numerous offenses, from impersonation fraud at the polls, to duplicate voting, to schemes to buy votes and steal elections."

Four hundred cases from all 50 states over two decades. That's an average of one documented case per state every 2.5 years. But in reality , even that is a gross exaggeration of the problem. If you search through those 400 cases compiled by the diligent researchers at Heritage, you find a total of three (3) that might have been prevented or addressed by strict voter-ID laws.

Per state, that's one case of voter impersonation every 333 years.

Based on the Heritage Foundation's own research, that's how big a problem this is. It's also worth noting that the vast majority of voting fraud cases listed in the Heritage database involve abuse of absentee balloting, a limited but real problem that conservatives have shown absolutely zero interest in addressing because it offers no political advantage to them.

Think about it: The Republican Party prides itself on opposing government regulation, bureaucracy, red-tape and unnecessary taxpayer expenditures. So when such a party insists on the creation of a massive, expensive new government bureaucracy in supposed response to a problem that by any rational analysis does not exist, I think it's safe to assume that something else is going on.

Increasingly, the courts are coming to that same conclusion. Recent rulings in Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin have overturned voter suppression efforts as illegal, unconstitutional infringements on the right to vote.

As U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson wrote, the Wisconsin case "demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections.’’

In the North Carolina case, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was even more critical. It noted that North Carolina Republicans had compiled reams of information about the means, location and timing of voting by black and younger citizens. GOP legislators and staffers wanted to know which forms of ID that black and young voters would be least likely to use; they wanted to know when and where those voters cast their ballots and when and how they typically registered.

As the court found, those legislators then devised an omnibus piece of legislation to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision”  and suppress their vote. Those forms of government-issued ID used most disproportionately by black voters were no longer acceptable to vote. "African-Americans disproportionately used early voting," so early voting was curtailed. Black churches used Sunday voting to get parishioners to the polls, so Sunday voting was cut in half. Legislators discovered that black and young voters disproportionately used same-day registration to vote, so same-day registration was eliminated despite a complete absence of evidence that it had been abused.

And on and on it went, provision after provision, each and every one trying to deny the vote to certain groups.

"Faced with this record, we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent," the court wrote.

So yes, the shenanigans at Kennesaw State are shameful.  But they don't approach in scale or malevolence what is being attempted through the law in legislatures all over the country.  You hear a lot of frustration from Republicans these days about their inability to attract black and minority voters, a lot of bafflement about why they can't seem to get a fair hearing.

But if you want respect, you have to show respect. And if Republicans had spent half as much time, energy, money and ingenuity trying to woo minority voters as they've spent trying to keep them from voting at all, they'd be a lot better off.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.