To the Editor:
With each historical effort to protect and extend the right to vote, both political parties have argued that expanding the franchise, whether through federal protections for voting rights or by reducing barriers, would lead to more voter fraud. The threat of fraud was taken up by congressional opponents of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; it was raised in the conflict over extending the Act during the first Reagan Administration; and again, in more recent debates over the National Voter Registration Act. It is the success of these reforms that explains why fraud claims have re-emerged as a form of voter intimidation. The legacy of the civil rights movement make it no longer acceptable to suppress voting through the use of violence, poll taxes or literacy tests. Today the intimidation is more subtle. Republicans in the Virginia Legislature insist that the votes of legitimate, qualified voters are threatened by the votes of ineligible voters, justifying their support for restrictive voter ID requirements.
Our history shows it is a common tactic to shape the electorate by influencing the rules for access to the vote. It is difficult to openly suppress voting in a truly democratic culture. The threat of fraud, however, if it’s perceived as real, is enough to scare many people into accepting rules that undermine the electoral participation of other voters — the price, we are told, we must pay to keep our elections clean. The unraveling logic of this argument is all too obvious. Reason flies out the window when we’re scared.
The use of voter fraud allegations is strategic and in this sense rational, if unethical. In the late 19th century when freed slaves were swept into electoral politics and where African Americans were the majority of the electorate in many southern states, it was the Democrats who were threatened by a loss of power, and it was the Democratic party that erected new rules as being necessary to respond to the alleged fraud of former slaves.
Today, the success of voter registration drives by minorities and low income people threatens to expand the base of the Democratic party and tip the balance of power away from the Republicans. It is not difficult to understand why partisan operatives might seek to generate public support for new restrictions on the vote that will disproportionately hinder opposition voters.
Such efforts are misleadingly labeled electoral integrity because after 200 years struggling for the vote and winning it from below, minority and low income voters are not so easily discredited in the name of democracy. Therefore we see an appeal to misplaced moral sensibilities like the idea that integrity trumps rights. Overstated voter fraud claims are essentially political acts because the contested history of party, race and class in American politics makes them so.
The so-called culprits today are mostly found among those still struggling for full inclusion in American life. That they are more likely to identify with one party than the other makes them doubly vulnerable to fraud accusations and to the collateral damage of high stakes competitive partisan politics.
Voters, like all other actors or groups in the electoral process, can only corrupt that part to which they have access. Given their limited access, voters can only corrupt the registration and voting phases. They can’t corrupt the vote tallying and counting phases where most election fraud has occurred in the past because they lack access to votes after they’ve cast them.
We need better data, better election administration, transparency and responsible journalism to improve public understanding of the legitimate ways in which electoral outcomes can be distorted and manipulated not legislation to limit access to the polls.