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.)
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."
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.
Another key case: Rhode Island-a state with a Democratic legislature and governor-voted to enact a Voter ID law last year. (The law goes into effect in 2014 and allows for a range of photo IDs-including medical IDs and student IDs issued by universities.) State Rep. Jon Brien sponsored the House version of the bill and noted that key minority legislators actively supported it because of cases of voter fraud in the state.
Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota, told Governing magazine that Rhode Island's legislation could change perceptions of Voter ID laws: "What was once a predictable partisan divide might be more fluid-and more than a little surprising in the months to come."
For now, Voter ID remains a tense issue in South Carolina. Though South Carolina officials have offered free photo IDs (and free rides to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain them), some voters still find ID a major hurdle: If they don't have a valid birth certificate, they can't get a state-issued ID. And if they don't have a state-issued ID, they usually can't get a birth certificate.
That's a circle Brenda Williams has been traveling for months. The physician in a low-income neighborhood in Sumter, S.C., has been promoting voter registration among her patients for years. Now she's helping some of those same patients obtain IDs to vote.
Some patients have never had birth certificates, especially some elderly citizens delivered at home decades ago by midwives who never registered their births. Others have birth certificates with misspelled names-another problem when trying to obtain a photo ID.
An online service called VitalCheck can help some citizens obtain a birth certificate if they don't have a photo ID. (The fees are at least $50.) But if they don't have a birth certificate at all, they often need an attorney, a prohibitively expensive prospect for poorer voters.
That includes Junior Glover, a 74-year-old Sumter resident with no birth certificate and no photo ID. Glover finished first grade and then worked decades on a farm. Though he doesn't read or write, he's been voting with assistance for years. During a late afternoon visit at his rental home, Glover described what he thought when he heard he might need a photo ID to vote at the polls: "I guess they don't want me to vote."
But Glover's problems go beyond voting. His daughter-in-law, Maryjane Glover, says she's been trying to help him get a photo ID for years: Without an ID, Glover says she can't cash his Social Security check at a bank, and she can't deposit it for him. Glover goes to a local check-cashing business that charges $20, a sizeable chunk of two checks that amount to $521 and $197 each month.
In a housing project near Glover's home, Donna DuBose smiles and flashes a photo ID that took years for her to obtain. DuBose met Williams after seeing a flier about photo IDs and voting. She had been trying to get an ID for years to cash checks, order medicine, and help manage her husband's financial affairs. (Her husband is disabled and doesn't have a birth certificate or photo ID.)
DuBose had a birth certificate, but it listed her name as "Baby Girl Kennedy"-a designation given by a midwife. Until she obtained a birth certificate with a corrected name, she couldn't get an ID. Finally, Williams convinced a local attorney to take her case. Now DuBose is thrilled: "I don't know how I made it through life without this."
South Carolina officials say they're sympathetic to such cases, but point to a key provision in the law: If DOJ approves the law, state officials will issue free photo registration ID cards that require only oral verification of a Social Security number. (Unregistered voters will have to show a utility bill, Social Security check, or other document.) Voters would have to travel to their county registration office, but they wouldn't need a birth certificate.
Still, Williams thinks the law presents too many obstacles to voting. She's convinced the law targets minorities since most of the citizens she helps are black. She also believes the law aims to thwart the president.
With a photo of Obama hanging prominently in the waiting room of her doctor's office, Williams acknowledges that she's an "avid" supporter of the president, but says she tells others to vote their conscience: "I don't care if you vote for Barack Obama or Little Sally Walker. ... Just vote."
Attorney General Wilson resents charges that the law has a racist intent and notes an important breakdown: A DOJ analysis showed that 10 percent of non-white voters in South Carolina don't have a state-issued photo ID. The number of whites without one: 8.4 percent.
These days, South Carolina election officials are dealing with another issue: reports of more than 900 "dead voters." State DMV director Kevin Shwedo compared voter rolls from the state election commission (showing when someone last voted) to death records from the Social Security Administration and the state's vital statistics office. The results: Shwedo says he found 956 names listed as voting after their dates of death.
Whitmire-spokesman for the election commission-says the office investigated 207 of those votes and found no cases of voter fraud. Most involved clerical errors by poll managers. (For example, when John Doe Jr. showed up to vote, poll workers marked John Doe Sr., who was dead.)
But if the errors were clerical, they were also instructive about the challenges of keeping accurate voting rolls: Whitmire says the DMV identified some 30,000 deceased people on the state election commission voter rolls. He says that's because the DMV has access to more information, including Social Security records that the commission can't access. He says his office plans to push for legislation that would give it access to the same data.
In the meantime, other states face challenges with bloated or errant voting rolls. Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gesslar reported last March that his department found nearly 12,000 non-citizens registered to vote in the state. Nearly 5,000 of those voted in the 2010 general elections, he said.
The National Voter Registration Act calls for states to clean voting rolls and purge dead or ineligible voters. But former DOJ attorney J. Christian Adams testified in 2010 that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes advised attorneys in the civil-rights division that they wouldn't be enforcing the statutes, saying it wouldn't help with "increasing voter turnout." (Adams resigned from DOJ, protesting the department's policies.)
John Fund-author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy-says that messy voter rolls open the potential for fraud. He advocates Voter ID laws as a protection against fraud, but also notes that absentee ballots-like the ones that Sowers from Mississippi used-represent a major vulnerability.
Since most states don't require photo ID for absentee ballots, the weakness remains in the system. Fund says that since Republican lawmakers have constituencies that often favor absentee ballots, they often downplay serious abuses of mail-in ballots.
And there's another vulnerability in the system: Couldn't voters beat Voter ID laws by producing fake IDs? Since voter impersonation at polls is rare, it seems unlikely that a large group of voters would undertake a concerted effort to cheat at the polls.
But security expert Steve Williams says it's not impossible. The CEO of Intellicheck Mobilisa-a Washington-based security firm that specializes in identity and wireless security systems-says "millions" of fake IDs float around the United States already. "With today's technology, you can go to Walmart, buy a printer, download a program, and make a pretty good fake ID," he said. With Photoshop and heavy cardstock, he adds: "You can probably make a driver's license in about 30 seconds."
Many states-including South Carolina-don't have plans to use scanners to spot fake IDs. Williams thinks that's a mistake: "Without technology, I would gamble that you would be defeated."
Blacks after the Civil War tended to vote for Republicans, the party that had freed slaves and pushed civil-rights laws. Democrats in South Carolina discouraged black voting through devices like the eight-box ballot system, an indirect literacy test that required separate boxes for separate offices, with boxes periodically shuffled. If the voter inserted his ballot for senator in the governor ballot box, for example, the vote for senator was thrown out.
Such a system was confusing to illiterate and undereducated post-slavery blacks (and poor whites). Lawmakers also disenfranchised voters with polls taxes, direct literacy tests, and intimidation of various kinds. Voters had to read (and sometimes write) a section of the state Constitution, or to understand it to the satisfaction of the election official. When other discouragements failed, violence came into play.
Now to present-day South Carolina, where any citizen qualified to vote may vote. The State Election Commission reported that close to 240,000 active and inactive voters lacked a photo ID, but a DMV analysis of the data revealed that 207,000 of those voters no longer lived in the state, had allowed their IDs to expire, likely had IDs that didn't match voter records, or were dead.
The real percentage of voters who would need to get a new ID: 1.2 percent. A person who is poor in the true sense of the word can still obtain a state-issued photo ID at no cost. Some have complications of the kind Jamie Dean reports, but even residents without such ID can cast provisional ballots and confirm their identity at a later date before the results are certified.
Two points worth remembering: First, although it's been only 50 years or so since some states required blacks to enter through the back door and sit at the back of the bus, those times might as well be ancient history, given the astounding racial progress America has made. We've come a long, long way. The most pressing problem facing blacks in America isn't racism, institutional or otherwise. It's family instability.
Second, let's examine the insinuation that minorities, the poor, or the elderly are too lazy, stupid, or afraid to obey a common-sense, nondiscriminatory law that applies to everyone. That is an insult to the memory of people once faced with real intimidation.
-La Shawn Barber is a journalist best known for her blog, La Shawn Barber's Corner