Cover Story

Ballot boxing

"Ballot boxing" Continued...

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

That's significant in a state that passed a Voter ID law in 2011 aimed at preventing voter fraud. (The South Carolina law requires voters to present a state-issued photo ID when voting at the polls.) Opponents of the law have seized on Whitmire's comments, saying they prove the law is unnecessary.

But Whitmire-whose office is neutral on the Voter ID law-offers an important caveat: "It could be going on and we don't know about it. ... Those are facts, too."

The facts about voter fraud are hard to pin down. Some call it a myth. Others say it's widespread. The Brennan Center for Justice-a group opposed to Voter ID laws-says it's statistically more likely for an American to get hit by lightning than to cast knowingly a fraudulent ballot. Indeed, cases of voter impersonation at the polls are rare.

But a study by the Republican National Lawyers Association-a group in favor of Voter ID laws-reported that officials in 46 states have pursued prosecutions or won convictions related to voter fraud in the last decade. The report listed a handful of cases in most states, though Indiana included nearly 50 cases. The charges included absentee fraud, non-citizens voting, and voters casting ballots in the wrong precincts.

Meanwhile, cases of voter fraud keep popping up: In November, Madison County, Fla., officials arrested nine people for voter fraud in connection with absentee ballots in a local election. In December, two city officials and two Democratic operatives in Troy, N.Y., pleaded guilty to forging absentee ballots and casting fraudulent ballots in a 2009 primary.

In February, an Indiana judge sentenced former Secretary of State Charlie White to a year of home detention for six felony convictions related to voter fraud, perjury, and theft. The Republican was the state's top election official.

So is voter fraud a serious problem? The answer to that question partly hinges on the definition of voter fraud. Opponents of Voter ID laws tend to define it narrowly as a voter succeeding in casting a fraudulent ballot.

Others define it more broadly as any form of fraud connected to the electoral system, including the kind of fraudulent registrations that made ACORN infamous during the last presidential election. Workers for the activist organization submitted some 400,000 bogus voter registrations in 2008.

Proponents of the broader definition say fraudulent registrations don't equal fraudulent votes, but that they could facilitate fraud by corrupting the voter rolls. Some experts say that messy voter rolls could be the system's biggest vulnerability of all.

Back in South Carolina, Attorney General Alan Wilson is focused on Voter ID laws. He says the rule requiring photo identification is a logical step in a country that requires photo identification for everything from cashing checks to buying cold medicine: "Shouldn't there be a basic protection for the integrity of the [voting] process?"

In one landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court has said yes. The court upheld Indiana's Voter ID law in 2008, ruling that the law is "amply justified by the valid interest and reliability of the electoral process." In a 6-3 ruling, the justices rebuffed arguments by civil-rights groups that the law would disenfranchise minority voters, saying, "The statute does not impose an excessively burdensome requirement on any class of voters."

In South Carolina's case, the DOJ disagrees. Attorneys for the Obama administration say that since as many as 200,000 citizens-including a large number of minorities-over age 18 don't have photo IDs, the law could disenfranchise those voters. Both sides claim political motives, noting that most states that have passed Voter ID laws have Republican-controlled legislatures, and that most governors that veto the laws are Democrats.

In January, members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus charged that Voter ID laws aim to suppress minority vote and thwart the reelection of President Barack Obama. During a speech on the House floor, Rep. Donna Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, said the laws are "a specific attempt to derail what surely would be and ought to be the reelection of Barack Obama."

Some supporters of the law claim the opposite. Ken Blackwell-former Ohio Secretary of State and a fellow with the conservative Family Research Council-says the DOJ's efforts stir up minority support for Obama by "painting a picture of racial conflict" and making Obama and the DOJ their champion. (Blackwell is black and a life member of the NAACP, a group that opposes Voter ID laws.)

Beyond political arguments, it's helpful to look at specific cases: After a Georgia Voter ID law went into effect in 2007, African-American voter turnout rose 42 percent, according to the Heritage Foundation. In 2008, the same year the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's law, Obama narrowly won the typically Republican state in the presidential elections.

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