For decades, Republicans have been claiming that voter fraud was endemic. Supposedly, thousands if not millions of people were improperly voting ― for Democrats. This was the basis for photo-ID requirements and excessive purges of the voting rolls, and felony penalties for people found to have voted improperly.
Any serious person understood that all of this was a cynical smoke screen for partisan voter suppression. The people targeted were from groups inclined to vote Democratic, notably African Americans, Latinos, the foreign-born, poor people, and college students. The targeting reached an extreme, where in some states gun licenses could be used as photo ID for voting, but not ID cards from state universities, and not welfare, food stamp or Medicaid cards.
Serious research found that the actual number of verified improper voting cases over several decades was in the low-double digits. The New York Times, in an exhaustive investigation, found just four cases. The Washington Post, going back several decades with a broader definition, identified 31. More than a dozen academic studies had similar findings.
Yet all of the hysteria about voter fraud only intensified under President Donald Trump, who claimed based on no evidence whatsoever that 3 million to 5 million people had illegally voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump created a commission, co-chaired by the champion vote suppressor, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to demand state records and ferret out illegal voting. The commission proved such an embarrassment that Trump abruptly shut it down.
According to a comprehensive study by the Brennan Center, 24 states controlled by Republicans introduced new forms of voting restrictions since 2010. Of these, 13 states added more restrictive voter ID requirements, 11 made it more difficult for citizens to register, seven cut back early voting. In 2016, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. In Alabama, public housing ID was dropped from the list of acceptable forms of ID, even though it is issued by a government agency.
So determined have Republicans been to document voter fraud that they have thrown the book at the occasional person who innocently votes improperly. In Texas, a black mother of three, Crystal Mason, began a five-year prison term in September for the crime of voting. A former felon, she had not realized that she was not permitted to vote. This is a more severe sentence than any bank executive received for committing a multi-billion dollar fraud that contributed to crashing the entire economy.
Well, some genuine, systematic election fraud has finally come to light. And – surprise, surprise – it was the Republicans who did it.
In North Carolina, Republicans hatched a cynical plan in the 9th Congressional District to trick voters into handing Republican operatives absentee ballots. Some were left blank, and were filled in by operatives to vote for the Republican. Others, which voted for the Democrat, never found their way to the ballot box.
Initially, the Republican candidate, Mark Harris, led the Democrat, Dan McCready, by 905 votes. But then it came to light that the Harris campaign had agreed to pay over $34,000 to a political consultant to conduct the fraudulent door-to-door operation.
North Carolina authorities are still investigating. Even Republicans are annoyed, because there is the possibility that Harris used similar dirty tricks to defeat his opponent in the Republican primary, and efforts are underway to dump Harris in favor of a less tainted Republican candidate.
State officials will almost surely order a new election. If Harris is somehow certified as the winner, the incoming House Democrats will refuse to seat him. Either way, the election is likely to get a do-over.
This brand of election fraud is in line with a long history of Republican dirty tricks, winding back to Richard Nixon’s “ballot security” program run by William Rehnquist in Arizona in 1964, aimed at intimidating black and Latino voters, long before Rehnquist was elevated to the Supreme Court.
The history of state officials, mostly in the South, using hazing techniques ranging from bogus exams to murder to deprive black Americans of the right to vote, connects the Jim Crow era to new tricks legalized by the Supreme Court after the court invalidated major sections of the Voting Rights Act in the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder ruling of 2013.
So, here is a modest proposal. Republicans have demanded a crackdown on voting fraud, in the name of safeguarding democracy. But taking away someone’s vote improperly is every bit as fraudulent and every bit as much an assault on democratic rights as voting improperly.
And while cases of improper voting are vanishingly rare, cases of improperly blocking the right to vote are pervasive. What’s worse, denial of the franchise is typically perpetrated by public officials who have the full force of the law on their side.
But, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever been criminally charged with denying a citizen the right to vote. And that, of course, is the real form of widespread ballot fraud.
The Supreme Court, in its Shelby ruling, did leave room for Congress to revise and reinstate the Voting Rights Act. This will be one of the first orders of business for the new Democratic House in January. If the Senate refuses, it will become a high priority when Democrats take both houses and the presidency in 2020.
And when Congress does reinstate the Voting Rights Act, the new law should include criminal penalties for denying someone’s right to vote. Republicans, given their profound concern for the integrity of the electoral process, should vote for this provision unanimously.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.