Why are we hearing so much about voter fraud and so little about election fraud? After all, the odds of someone voting fraudulently are about the same as those of an American being struck and killed by lightning.
A microscopic evaluation of election data in the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington state revealed that voter fraud occurred approximately 0.0009 percent of the time. An analysis of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004 percent.
In 1998, Allan J. Lichtman, a consultant on voting rights, was asked by the state of Maryland to investigate charges that the Republican candidate for governor lost because of some 6,000 fraudulent votes. He writes that he found "not a single fraudulent vote [among] the 1.4 million ballots cast in the election."
A 2007 experts' report to the federal Election Assistance Commission concluded that "false registration forms have not resulted in polling place fraud." The Department of Justice, which according to the attorney general has "made enforcement of election fraud and corruption offenses a top priority," convicted only 24 people between 2002 and 2005 for voting fraud, an average of eight people a year. And these convictions were of individuals guilty of themselves casting illegal votes, not of instigating widespread voting fraud.
On the other hand, evidence of what I will somewhat imprecisely call election fraud -- voter suppression by election officials and state governments -- is widespread and validated. "Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law," the New York Times recently concluded after its own investigation. The Times' numbers don't include efforts by state officials and private parties to discourage, intimidate or challenge eligible voters.
This is the type of voter fraud we should be hearing about. Why aren't we? The principal reason may be explained in the title of one of the best reports on the subject, "The Politics of Voter Fraud" by Barnard Professor Lorraine C. Minnite.
Expanded voter rolls tend to favor Democrats. One reason is that voter-registration drives are usually conducted in minority and low-income neighborhoods and on campuses, areas that are likely to vote Democratic. Voter-suppression efforts, on the other hand, tend to favor Republicans because minorities, poor families and students will be least likely to overcome the new obstacles put in place.
Is this why in the third presidential debate, John McCain accused ACORN of being involved in voter fraud so massive that it "may be destroying the fabric of democracy" while not saying anything during his entire campaign about the far greater threat from widespread voter purging and voter-suppression initiatives?
Is this why the Department of Justice has rapidly launched a national investigation of ACORN, the nation's largest grass-roots organization advocating for low- and moderate-income families, but has not begun to investigate the illegal activities by states and private parties to reduce voting turnout?
Raising the fear of individual voter fraud brings a short-term and a long-term advantage to those who would reduce the turnout of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. In the short term, it hobbles registration and turnout efforts. In the longer term, it helps to persuade state legislatures to pass laws that make it more difficult to vote.
Such was the case in Florida. In 2004, Florida Republicans accused ACORN of massive voter fraud. The publicity given that charge and the ensuing investigation was as ubiquitous as the publicity now being given to attacks on ACORN. A Florida court found ACORN innocent of all charges. But in the meantime, the Florida legislature passed a law imposing stiff penalties for organizations that fail to turn in voter-registration applications later than 10 days after they were collected. The law's reporting requirements were so draconian the League of Women Voters ended 77 years of voter-registration activity in the state because it feared it could not comply and would be bankrupted if there were problems. (A federal judge later blocked the implementation of the law as unconstitutional.)
The fear of voter fraud has resulted in states enacting burdensome and unnecessary photo ID laws for voting and in a federal law that allows voters to be challenged when their registration data deviates in even a small way from federal databanks (for example, one set of data including a middle initial when the other doesn't).
Republicans have seeded, then inflamed our fears of bottom-up voter fraud, even though voter fraud is a trivial problem and has never had an impact on the outcome of elections. And that fear has tragically diverted our attention from the real enemy: top-down voter suppression initiatives that have indeed determined elections and are truly a threat to the fabric of democracy.
David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.