Cover Story
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Ballot boxing

Campaign 2012 | Opponents of Voter ID laws say advocates want to depress minority turnout to defeat President Obama. But supporters say the laws are a common-sense way to block an obvious avenue of election fraud

Issue: "Who will vote?," April 21, 2012

For Mississippi inmate Lessadolla Sowers, a personal downfall hinged on a common activity: licking envelopes.

Envelope-licking didn't directly lead to Sowers' conviction during her 2011 trial in Tunica County, Miss., but a jury found Sowers guilty for what prosecutors said she placed inside envelopes during the weeks before the 2007 Democratic primaries: fraudulent absentee ballots.

Forensic scientist Bo Scales testified last April that he found Sowers' DNA on the inside seal of five envelopes containing ballots. Ultimately, a jury convicted Sowers of 10 counts of voter fraud for submitting absentee ballots in the names of 10 different people, including four who were dead. (The living victims testified that they didn't know Sowers or ask her to cast ballots for them.)

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Circuit Court Judge Charles Webster sentenced Sowers to a five-year prison term for each of the 10 counts, but ruled that she could serve the sentences concurrently. He wasn't as lenient in his personal assessment, according to a report in The Tunica Times: "This crime cuts against the fabric of our free society."

Advocates for tougher voting laws cite Sowers' case as an example of the kind of fraud that demands stricter standards for casting ballots. They say razor-thin elections prove that even a handful of votes could make an enormous difference: In the highest-profile case in recent history, George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election after carrying Florida by some 500 votes.

Earlier this year, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum defeated opponent Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses by some 34 votes. With this year's presidential election less than seven months away, some states already look poised to feature tight contests that could yield thin margins. In a process that always demands vigilance to ensure fair elections, the stakes are high.

That presents an obvious question: How can election officials prevent voter fraud? Though there's more than one answer, one of the highest-profile-and most controversial-efforts involves Voter ID laws that require voters to present identification when casting ballots at the polls.

The controversy has become even more heated since the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently blocked new Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, saying the legislation could disenfranchise minority voters. (The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires nine Southern states to gain pre-clearance from DOJ before implementing changes in voting laws.) Both states are fighting the ruling.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 31 states require voters to present some form of identification before voting at the polls. Sixteen of those states allow some forms of non-photo identification, including utility bills or bank statements. The other 15 states require photo identification. (States vary in what forms of photo ID they allow.)

Supporters of photo ID say the laws are a common-sense way to verify a voter's identity. Opponents charge that the laws discriminate against minority voters, who are less likely to have photo IDs. Sometimes the argument gets ugly: Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP, called the laws "racist in intent." Rickey Hill, professor of black politics and theory at Mississippi Valley State University, told The Huffington Post that advocates of such laws in Southern states are "trying to reclaim the South as the bastion of white domination."

But in Sowers' case, arguments about Voter ID don't matter. Though Mississippi passed a photo ID law in 2007, the rule didn't include absentee ballots. Indeed, most states with photo ID laws don't apply the requirement to absentee voting. That means the photo ID law in Mississippi-and many other states-wouldn't have caught Sowers' scheme.

It's a conundrum at the heart of the debate over Voter ID laws: The kind of voter impersonation that photo ID requirements could catch at the polls is rare compared to cases of fraud involving absentee ballots that don't require photo identification at all. This doesn't mean voter impersonation doesn't happen or that Voter ID laws couldn't prevent it. It does mean that thwarting voter fraud is more complicated than simply requiring a photo ID.

Indeed, a closer look at South Carolina, one of the states battling for a Voter ID law, reveals a nationwide reality: a complicated electoral system with complicated problems that could produce vulnerabilities in the voting process.

Meanwhile, addressing the problems is a complicated task that involves cutting through dynamics of race and politics and searching for solutions that can help people facing problems inside and outside the voting booth.

Ask Chris Whitmire about voter fraud in South Carolina, and the spokesman for the state's election commission answers: "It is a fact that we have no documented cases of voter fraud in recent history."

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