Election Integrity Watch is planning unprecedented efforts to combat electoral fraud in Tuesday’s balloting. The coalition of conservative advocacy groups claims that it’s going to have “thousands” of trained poll watchers to keep an eye out for irregularities on Election Day. Among the shenanigans they’ll be on the lookout for: buses driving voters to multiple polling locations to cast votes and political operatives handing out gift cards to entice individuals to support a particular candidate.
Poll watchers will then report any such irregularities to a 10-phone war room set up to track complaints. Election Integrity Watch is advertising its anti-fraud campaign on electronic billboards, bus shelters and a mobile billboard. The group’s even offering an unprecedented $500 bounty for anyone who provides information that leads to a conviction on voter fraud charges.
“It’s frustrating to me that it is necessary, but we believe that it is,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, which is among four organizations involved in the Election Integrity Watch effort. “It appears that no one is doing anything to address these problems.”
The ultimate goal for Election Integrity Watch is to garner support for passing a law that requires voters to show photo identification before they can cast a ballot. More than 20 states nationwide have such requirements and in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indiana’s law met constitutional muster.
But there’s little convincing statistical evidence to suggest that voter fraud is widespread either in Minnesota or the country as a whole. In the wake of the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that cracking down on voter fraud would be a high priority. But even with the country’s top law enforcement authority focused on the issue, there proved to be few documentable instances of illegal activity.
According to a study by Lorraine Minnite, a professor at Columbia University and the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud, there were just 26 federal convictions for voter fraud in the entire United States between 2002 and 2005. These included five individuals who could not vote because of felony convictions, 14 non-citizens, and five who voted twice in the same election.
“It followed a concerted effort by the Justice Department to go after fraud,” said Minnite of the study. “Here you had the Justice Department looking into federal elections — looking, looking, looking – and that’s what they come up with.”
Cases rare in Minnesota
In Minnesota the numbers are similarly unimpressive. During the 2006 election cycle there were just six cases of illegal aliens attempting to vote, compared to a total of 2.2 million people showing up at the polls. That works out to 0.000003 percent of all votes cast.
Minnesota Majority and its allies have devoted considerable resources to uncovering instances of fraud during the 2008 elections, a particularly contentious time because of the U.S. Senate recount. The group has cross-checked lists of convicted felons against the voter rolls to find individuals who may have voted illegally. It claims to have found roughly 1,000 such instances. (In Minnesota convicted felons are prohibited from voting until after they have finished serving probation.)
But the number of successful prosecutions remains minuscule. In Hennepin County, for instance, indictments were recently handed down on 47 individuals for purportedly voting illegally. But that’s out of roughly 450 names that Minnesota Majority had identified in the state’s most populous county as fraudulent voters. And even if all 47 cases ultimately result in convictions (hardly a given), it would mean that 0.00009 percent of ballots were illegally cast in the 2008 election in Hennepin County.
“There is no evidence of any sort of systemic voter fraud in this state,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, who is no relation to his conservative namesake at Minnesota Majority. “There’s barely any evidence of voter fraud at all. … For years the far right wing has worked very hard to try to make its case. They are clearly fact-averse.”
Suppressing the vote
David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University who has written about the issue extensively, has reached similar conclusions about the claims of widespread voter fraud. “There is a greater chance of one being hit by lightning than of an election being affected by fraud,” Schultz wrote in a 2008 article for the William Mitchell Law Review.
He sees the recent efforts to pass voter identification requirements as part of a historical pattern to suppress voter turnout. “A second great disenfranchisement is afoot across the United States as, yet again, voter fraud is raised as a way to intimidate immigrants, people of color, the poor, and the powerless, and prevent them from voting,” Schultz wrote. “This time the tools are not literacy tests, poll taxes, or lynch mobs, but rather the use of photo IDs when voting.”
TakeAction’s McGrath echoes this assessment. “If you look at where the advertising and these supposed challengers are being deployed, they’re being deployed into low-income communities and communities of color,” he said. “That is a deliberate strategy to suppress the vote in those communities. There is no other way about it.”
Minnite argues that there are significant problems with voting systems in the United States, but that organized fraud is not among them. She notes that elections are mostly run by volunteers and consequently tend to be chaotic affairs. This allows allegations of fraud to persist even when the evidence doesn’t necessarily add up.
“You can point to something like, ‘this number doesn’t match that number,’” she said. “It must be fraud.”