The real fraud in voter registration

Consumer protection, Crime, Immigration, Politics, Rights

A rash of new voter registration laws—also known as voter ID laws—across the country purport to protect the democratic process from fraud. Those who support the laws often cite the high numbers of undocumented immigrants living in the United States as a serious risk factor.

At first glance, it makes sense for the voter registration process to include proof of eligibility to vote. But the reality is that disenfranchisement is the most likely outcome.

As long ago as 2007, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that “by any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.” The report goes on to show that clerical errors are responsible for more anomalous votes than ineligible voters are.

This is attributed in part to the high penalties for fraud—each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to any state penalties—but also to its ineffectiveness. After all, only one vote is gained for each ineligible individual who casts a vote.

Voter identification or voter suppression?

Lending some credence to claims that restrictions on voter registration may be a sneaky corollary to gerrymandering, voter ID laws have been shown to depress voter turnout and appear to affect the young and minorities (who are more likely to vote Democrat) disproportionately. In August 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ voter ID law has a “discriminatory” effect on minorities. Royal Masset, the former political director for the Republican Party of Texas, was cited in the Brennan Center study as stating that requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a drop-off in legitimate Democratic voting to add three percent to the Republican vote.

Thirty states require voters to provide photo IDs when voting in person, and nine states require voters to include a photocopy of their ID when they vote by mail or absentee ballot. In many states, first-time voters face additional identification requirements. In Kansas, one of four states (including Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia) that require voters to provide proof of citizenship before they can complete their registration, 36,000 people were unable to complete the registration process. That is nearly a fifth of those who have attempted to register to vote since the law was enacted in 2013.

Almost all of these people would have been first-time voters, with about half under age 35. In October, Kansas began purging the list of pending registrations. Now, anyone who takes more than 90 days to complete the registration process will have to start over from the beginning.

Fraudulent results

Voter ID laws depress voter turnout on both sides of the aisle, with only a slightly greater effect on those who identify as Democrat (in Kansas, 23 percent of failed registrations were Democrats compared to 18 percent who were Republicans). But skewing the pool of registered voters three to five percent could change the outcome of a close race in a low turnout election.

Equal access to the right to vote has been a struggle in the United States for as long as we have been holding elections. In 1993, Congress found that “discriminatory and unfair registration laws” in many states reduced voting by minority and low-income citizens, and passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in an attempt to encourage all eligible voters to register. One of the central provisions of the law required motor vehicle departments to provide voter registration services.

The NVRA has not equalized voter registration, however. In 2012, low income residents were still 20 percent less likely to register to vote than those with higher incomes. This is partly due to states’ incomplete implementation of the NVRA.

Registering change

In September 2015, California passed a bill that would automatically register anyone eligible to vote in California when they get a driver’s license (unless they opt out). The new law, opposed by all Republicans who voted, will bring California into full compliance with the NVRA.

Nominally drafted in response to low turnout in the last election, the bill may also have forestalled a lawsuit. In February 2015, the ACLU of California filed a complaint with the Secretary of State threatening to sue over violations of the NVRA.

Whatever your opinion of the risk of voter fraud, and even if there are hurdles—especially if there are hurdles—that make it harder for you to register, the best way to change voter registration laws is with your vote.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

Photo courtesy of Everett Historical/Freedmen at a voter registration office, Macon, Georgia in 1867. 19th century engraving with modern color.

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