Voter-fraud issue returns, along with partisan rancor

Zachary Roth

In recent election cycles, Republicans and Democrats have consistently clashed not just over policy, but over voting itself. And this year is no exception.

The GOP habitually warns about the threat of fraudulent votes being cast for Democrats -- though there is little evidence to support the claims. For their part, Democrats say GOP voter-fraud claims have the effect of intimidating Democratic-leaning blocs and keeping them from the polls.

In this election season, Republican candidates and conservative activists have raised the fear that voter fraud could allow Democrats in close races to steal victory.

Tea party groups have said they plan to aggressively monitor the polls and challenge voters they suspect of being ineligible. One Minnesota group has announced a $500 reward for anyone who turns in someone who is successfully prosecuted for voter fraud.

In an email Monday announcing his campaign's Honest Voter Hotline, GOP Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, a tea party favorite, warned that allies of the Democratic Party "have shown a willingness to commit fraud across the country, in both this election cycle and recent years." Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate candidate from Illinois, has said he'll mount the largest "voter integrity program" in 15 years.

And billboards recently posted throughout Milwaukee depicted people behind bars, accompanied by the words "We Voted Illegally."

The Republican concern over voter fraud isn't new to this cycle.

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In 2006, under President George W. Bush, the Justice Department fired several U.S. attorneys in part because they were unwilling to pursue voter-fraud cases. According to one 2009 poll, most Republicans believe that the community group ACORN used voter fraud to steal the 2008 election for Barack Obama (though, as Katie Connolly of Newsweek points out, no evidence exists to back up that claim, and Obama won by wide margins even in areas with little or no ACORN presence). Republicans point to stories about ACORN staffers turning in voter registration forms with names like Mickey Mouse. But such cases aren't voter fraud, since the Disney character doesn't actually show up to vote.

When it comes to actual votes cast, fraud cases are few and far between. A Justice Department report found that from October 2002 to September 2005, fewer than 20 people were convicted of casting fraudulent ballots, the New York Times notes.

Still, it can't hurt to be vigilant, right?

Well, Democrats and voting rights advocates say there's a downside to all the concern about fraud: that it can cause confusion at the polls and intimidate some legitimate voters who may not know their rights.  As Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center, a voting-rights group, put it in an op-ed on Monday: "'Ballot security' squads manned by angry, under-trained activists at a polling place could easily spawn intimidation or chaos."

Worries over fraud also have led some states to pass laws imposing stricter ID requirements for registration and voting -- steps that voting-rights groups say discriminate against low-income and minority voters, who are less likely to have identification documents like a driver's license and who move more frequently.

Still, the GOP and its allies show no sign of dropping their effort to root out voter fraud.  As the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin put it recently: "We are all voter fraud police now."

(File photo: AP)