By: Yitzchak Fried  | 

Voter Fraud: Who’s Really to Blame?

In an era of “alternative facts,” voter fraud seems to be one of those polarizing issues on which it’s impossible to achieve consensus. On the one hand, Democrats allege that voter fraud is a myth, a pretext for voter ID laws that suppress minority votes.  On the other, Republicans claim that voter fraud is a serious issue, and that voter ID laws are a justifiable measure to preserve the integrity of democracy. As recently as this past February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that “the Democratic myth that voter fraud is a fiction, is not true.”  

The latest iteration of the voter fraud debate has played out in a federal district court. On April 10th, the court affirmed that the most recent Texas voter ID law, SB 14, was passed with intention to discriminate against minority voters. The court’s decision marks the conclusion of proceedings that have lasted since 2011, in which the state of Texas repeatedly appealed the federal court’s ruling, and was repeatedly rebuffed. After a final review, the court’s decision found that voter fraud in Texas was insignificant; in the decade prior to the passing of SB 14, there were only two in-person voter fraud convictions out of twenty million cast votes. The weight of the evidence showed that the Texas legislature had used fraud as a pretext to pass a law to suppress minority voters who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

If voter fraud is a problem, as Senator McConnell has insisted, it is not a problem of in-person fraud—the only issue that voter ID laws address. In his MSNBC interview, McConnell insisted that “we’ve had a series of significant cases [of fraud] in Kentucky over the years. There is voter fraud in the country.” But, pressed by Wave 3 News—a Kentucky news outlet—for examples of what he meant, McConnell’s office pointed to a voter fraud scheme that was exposed in Kentucky in August 2016. That incident is demonstrative because it had nothing to do with the voter fraud attributed to minority groups. As the Lexington Herald Leader reported in 2016, it was a voter-purchasing scheme, in which supporters of candidates in local elections conspired to buy people’s votes. This sort of fraud has nothing to do with minorities or voter ID laws. If anything, it demonstrates that fraud by wealthy whites is alive and well. One of the five people charged, Scott McCarthy, testified to having participated in voter fraud in “several elections.” McCarthy admitted adding “60 votes to the total for a state representative candidate,” while working as a precinct officer, “to corrupt elections from the inside.”

McConnell may be right that voter fraud takes place in America, but it is not perpetrated by poor minorities. It is perpetrated by local politicians and their supporters—people with money to spend on purchasing votes, and a personal stake in the outcome. The numbers here are indicative; according to the L-H Leader, “McCarty testified [that]… Hardin put in $30,000 to buy votes in 2010, while Larry and Renee Shepherd put in $10,000 and Risner contributed $2,000.” This is not the sort of fraud available to minorities, for whom registration fees and the purchase price of ID’s are often deterrent enough not to vote in the first place.  

McConnell’s statement on MSNBC was contested by the Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Grimes, who said that conflating buying votes with in-person fraud was “disingenuous.” While it may have been disingenuous, it was also strategic. Even as McConell refuted Trump’s claim of rampant voter fraud in the Presidential election, he was careful to preserve the illusion that in-person fraud is, nonetheless, a significant issue. Voter ID laws, as SB 14 has shown, have become an important tool in the arsenal of Republican legislatures for consolidating power. Other tricks of the trade include gerrymandering districts and disenfranchising felons. The motive structure here is obvious. Republicans are not necessarily racists, but they are smart; they know that the easiest way to stay in office is to remove votes from the opposition. And if those votes happen to be black and Latino, so be it. The result, however, is a wildly skewed electorate, as key racial blocks are cut out of American democracy.