Charlie White's Indictment: Piercing the Veil of "Voter Fraud"

Last week, Indiana indicted its Secretary of State Charlie White on seven felony counts, including three counts of "voter fraud" and charges of theft and perjury. Independent special prosecutors have accused White of intentionally voting in the wrong precinct during the May 2010 Republican primary and lying about his address in order to maintain his seat on the Fisher City Council even after he moved out of the district.

White's indictment should be an embarrassment to Republicans, but also offers an opportunity to pierce the veil of so-called "voter fraud."

The term voter fraud is used to describe any number of improprieties at the ballot box, including voter impersonation, double voting, mistakenly completing registration forms, or voting without proper eligibility. As White's indictment shows, voter fraud is already a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison. In part because of this deterrence, voter fraud is exceedingly rare. After a five-year effort to find whether "voter fraud" was a systemic problem, the United States Department of Justice in 2007 declared that it found virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections. The small number of people that were charged by DOJ mostly misunderstood eligibility rules or mistakenly filled out registration forms.

The current wave of photo ID legislation will not address those irregularities, but are designed to prevent voter impersonation -- a phenomenon the nonpartisan Brennan Center has said is less likely than being struck by lightning. Nonetheless, states from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Texas are all considering strict photo ID laws. One New Hampshire bill would restrict voting booth access only to those with a state driver's license or photo ID card, while a second bill would change the definition of domicile to prevent college students from voting where they live and military personnel from voting where they are stationed.

Despite a Georgia court affirming that state's photo ID law yesterday, these requirements add almost no value to the process. What proponents of these laws miss is that federal law already requires states to verify voters' identities and obtain proof of residency at the time of their registration. Moreover, photo ID laws cost taxpayers millions and disproportionately burden low-income and minority voters. And in states like Indiana, where they act as a precondition to entering the voting booth, photo ID laws function like a modern-day poll tax, requiring voters to pay for the ID or the underlying documentation necessary to acquire it.

Indiana was the first state to implement a strict photo ID requirement at the polls, where only narrow forms of government-issued photographic identification are acceptable on Election Day. Even student identification cards at Indiana Wesleyan University or Payton Manning's employee ID from the Indianapolis Colts would not suffice.

The hypocrisy of Charlie White's claim that he would protect the integrity of the vote while simultaneously committing fraud himself has not escaped even his foremost supporters, among them Governor Mitch Daniels and Congressman Todd Rokita, his immediate predecessor as Indiana Secretary of State. Both men have issued calls for White to step down, but their attempts to distance themselves from their wayward protégé would be more authentic if they used this occasion to reconsider the reality of voter impersonation and their position on strict government-issued photo ID laws.