A Philosopher's Blog

Voter Fraud Prevention or Voter Suppression

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 15, 2014
English: map of voter ID laws in US

English: map of voter ID laws in US (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One essential aspect of a democracy is the right of each citizen to vote. This also includes the right to have her vote count. One aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter fraud does not occur. After all, voter fraud can rob legitimate voters of their right to properly decide the election. Another aspect of protecting this right is to ensure that voter suppression does not occur. This is because voter suppression can unjustly rob people of their votes.

Many Republicans have expressed concerns about voter fraud and have worked to enact laws aimed, they claim, at reducing such fraud. In response, many Democrats have countered that these laws are, they claim, aimed at voter suppression. Naturally, each side accuses the other of having wicked political motives. Many Democrats see the Republicans as trying to disenfranchise voters who tend to vote for Democrats (the young and minorities). The Republicans counter that the Democrats are supporting voter fraud because the fraud is in their favor. In many cases, these beliefs are no doubt quite sincere. However, the sincerity of a belief has no relevance to its truth. What matters are the reasons and evidence that support the belief. As such, I will look at the available evidence and endeavor to sort out the matter.

One point of contention is the extent of voter fraud. One Republican talking point is that voter fraud is widespread. For example, on April 7, 2014 Dick Morris claimed that over 1 million people voted twice in 2012. If this was true, then it would obviously be a serious matter: widespread voter fraud could change the results of elections and rob the legitimate voters of their right to decide. Democrats claim that voting fraud does occur, but occurs at such a miniscule level that it has no effect on election outcomes and thus does not warrant the measures favored by the Republicans.

Settling this matter requires looking at the available facts. In regards to Dick Morris’ claim (which made the rounds as a conservative talking point), the facts show that it is false. But the fact that Morris was astoundingly wrong does not prove that voter fraud is not widespread. However, the facts do. For example, in ten years Texas had 616 cases of allegations of voter fraud and only one conviction for double voting. In Kansas, 84 million voter records were analyzed for fraud. Of these, 14 cases were referred to prosecution with, as of this writing, zero convictions.

Republicans have argued for voter ID laws by contending that they will prevent fraud. However, investigation of voter fraud has shown only 31 credible cases out of one billion ballots. As such, this sort of fraud does occur—but only at an incredibly low rate.

In general, significant (let alone widespread) voter fraud does not occur although the myth is widespread. As such, the Republican claims about voter fraud are based on a myth and this would seem to remove the foundation for their claims and proposals regarding the matter.

It could be countered that while voter fraud is insignificant, it must still be countered by laws and policy changes, such as requiring voter IDs and eliminating early voting. This does have some appeal. To use an analogy, even if only a fraction of 1% of students cheated, then professors should still take steps to counter that cheating for the sake of academic integrity. Unless, of course, the measures used to counter that cheating did more damage than the cheating. The same would seem to apply to measures to counter voter fraud.

One rather important matter is the moral issue of whether it is more important to prevent fraud or to prevent disenfranchisement. This is analogous to the moral concern about guilt in the legal system. In the United States, there is a presumption of innocence on the moral grounds that it is better that a guilty person goes free than an innocent person is unjustly punished. In the case of voting, should it be accepted that it is better that a legitimate voter be denied her vote rather than an illegitimate voter be allowed to get away with fraud? Or is it better that an illegitimate voter gets away with fraud then for a legitimate voter to be denied her right to vote?

My own moral conviction is that it is more important to prevent disenfranchisement. Obviously I am against fraud and favor safeguards against fraud. However, given the minuscule rates of fraud if attempts to reduce it result in disenfranchisement, then I would oppose such attempts on moral grounds. Naturally, another person might take a different view and contend that it is worth disenfranchising voters in an attempt to reduce the minuscule rates of fraud to even more miniscule levels.

Returning to the matter of facts, one rather important concern is whether or not the laws and policies in question actually result in voter suppression. If they do not, even if they do nothing to counter voter fraud, then they would be tolerable (assuming they do not come with other costs).

Unfortunately, the evidence is that the laws that are allegedly aimed at preventing voter fraud actually serve as voter suppression measures, mostly aimed at minority voters. Keith Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien published a study entitled “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” Based on their analysis of the data, they concluded “the Republican Party has engaged in strategic demobilization efforts in response to changing demographics, shifting electoral fortunes, and an internal rightward ideological drift among the party faithful.” The full study, from the journal Perspectives on Politics, is available here. Since this is a factual matter, those who disagree with these findings can counter this by providing an analysis of equal or greater credibility based on supported facts.

Interestingly, it is a common talking point among Republicans that professors are tools of the Democrats and that academic experts should not be trusted. While this is a marvelous ad homimen, what is needed is actual evidence and arguments countering the claims. If professors are tools of the Democrats and academic experts are not to be trusted, then it should be rather easy to provide credible, objective evidence and analysis showing that they are in error. In terms of specifics regarding voter suppression, I offer the following evidence based discussion.

One of the best-known methods proposed to counter voter fraud is the voter ID law. While, as shown above, the sort of fraud that would be prevented by these laws seems to occur 31 times per 1 billion ballots, it serves to disenfranchise voters. In Texas 600,000-800,000 registered voters lack such IDs with Hispanics being 40-120% more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Carolina 318,000 registered voters lack the required ID and one third of them are African-American (African-Americans make up about 13% of the US population).

Another approach is to make it harder for citizens to register. One example is restrictions on voter registration drives—Hispanics and African-Americans register to vote at twice the rate of whites via drives. It is not clear how these methods would reduce fraud. The restrictions mostly do not seem to be aimed at making it harder for people to register fraudulently—just to make it more inconvenient to register.

A third tactic is to reduce the available early voting times and eliminate weekend and evening voting. This would seem to have no effect whatsoever on fraud, but seems aimed at minority voting patterns. In 2008 70% of African-American voters in North Carolina cast their ballots early. Minority voters are more likely than white voters to vote on weekends and in the evening. For example, 56% of the 2008 weekend voters in Cuyahoga County in Ohio were black.

A fourth tactic is to make it harder for people with past convictions to regain their voting rights. This impacts African Americans the most: 7.7% of African-Americans and 1.8% of the rest of the population have lost their right to vote in this manner. This tactic does not prevent fraud—it merely denies people the right to vote.

It would seem that the laws and policies allegedly aimed at voter fraud would not reduced the existing fraud (which is already miniscule) and would have the effect of suppressing voters. As such, these laws and proposals fail to protect the rights of voters and instead are a violation of that basic right. In short, they are either a misguided and failed effort to prevent fraud or a wicked and potentially successful effort to suppress minority voters. Either way, these laws and policies are a violation of a fundamental right of the American democracy.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 15, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    I remember a election night in Arkansas, when I was living there, around 6:30 pm, just before the polls closed, and our US congressman got on the television to inform everyone that, in certain neighborhoods, which were predominantly black, the polls would remain open until 10 pm, which was illegal, and that busses would be available to get people to the polls until that time. That same night, around the same time, the news was telling us that a large upper-middle class white neighborhood on the west side of town was missing ballots, and people were (and had been) unable to vote.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Voting rules need to be consistent and fairly applied. Denying a legitimate voter her vote is a crime against democracy.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on October 19, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Mike, I think the main fear regarding voter fraud is to what extent the 12 million or so undocumented aliens who live in the U.S. are participating in our elections. We know that these undocumented aliens routinely lie about their citizenship and also routinely provide false documents in order to work. It seems reasonable to infer that these same individuals might use those same false documents to vote and take advantage of other rights of citizens.

    It should also be remembered that at least some Dems favor giving non-citizens the right to vote:

    http://nypost.com/2014/09/15/democratic-pols-seek-amnesty-rights-under-ny-state-law-for-illegal-immigrants/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2014 at 10:48 am

      I know that the fear of Hispanic illegals voting has been fed and watered to help support these laws. But, if these 11 million folks have been engaging in voter fraud, there is no evidence I am aware of. Just a vague fear that they might vote. For Democrats. If there was evidence that voter fraud existed and was significant enough to warrant risking disenfranchising legitimate voters, then it would be morally right to impose effective methods for preventing such fraud. However, the vague fear about illegals does not warrant these laws.

      I’m sure some Democrats favor that. There are also some that like to dress up their cats. But what significant impact does this have?

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 20, 2014 at 1:47 pm

        I see. We should wait until the horse leaves the barn before closing the door.

        Mike–honestly–doesn’t the argument that it is somehow unfair to blacks or hispanics to ask them to get an ID strike you as racist?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 21, 2014 at 10:04 am

          Not at all. If the horses show no inclination to flee the barn, why nail the door shut and mine the ground in front of it? Less metaphorically, why impose a damaging solution to a problem that does not exist?

          It is not just about blacks and Hispanics. Senior citizens and the poor also face challenges in getting the required ID. Also, the ID requirement is presented as a solution to a non-problem. Plus, there is the fact that it seems to be a form of poll tax.

          Now if you can show that voter fraud is a significant problem, that the specific methods will counter the fraud and that the methods will not disenfranchise voters or impede legitimate voters unreasonably, then I will happily support the methods. But no one has done that yet. Mostly there are just appeals to fear, scare tactics, and misinformation.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on October 25, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Mike, here is some evidence:

    In a forthcoming article in the journal Electoral Studies, we bring real data from big social science survey datasets to bear on the question of whether, to what extent, and for whom non-citizens vote in U.S. elections. Most non-citizens do not register, let alone vote. But enough do that their participation can change the outcome of close races.

    Our data comes from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Its large number of observations (32,800 in 2008 and 55,400 in 2010) provide sufficient samples of the non-immigrant sub-population, with 339 non-citizen respondents in 2008 and 489 in 2010. For the 2008 CCES, we also attempted to match respondents to voter files so that we could verify whether they actually voted.

    How many non-citizens participate in U.S. elections? More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/24/could-non-citizens-decide-the-november-election/

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 25, 2014 at 12:01 pm

      And Mike, are you not committing the “appeal to ignorance” fallacy in your argument?

      Argument from ignorance (Latin: argumentum ad ignorantiam), also known as appeal to ignorance (in which ignorance stands for “lack of evidence to the contrary”), is a fallacy in informal logic. It asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false (or vice versa). This represents a type of false dichotomy in that it excludes a third option, which is that there is insufficient investigation and therefore insufficient information to prove the proposition satisfactorily to be either true or false.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2014 at 12:32 pm

        Not at all. My claim is not “voter fraud does not exist because it has not been shown to exist.” My point is that justifying the various laws aimed at allegedly curbing voter fraud requires showing that 1) the fraud does exist and 2) any negative impact on legitimate voters is offset by the positive impact. To use an analogy, if someone told me I needed to buy and use a medicine with the potential of harmful side-effects, then I would want evidence that I actually have the condition the medicine is supposed to treat and that the side-effects would be worth the gain.

        This is both a matter of burden of proof (those who claim fraud exists would seem to have the burden of proof-after all, if they are justified in this claim, then they can simply provide the evidence used to justify it) and balance of consideration decision making.

        As I have said, if it can be shown that voter fraud is significant, that method X will reduce fraud while not unduly or unjustly impeding legitimate voters, then I would be fine with method X.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 27, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      Interesting. If the study is accurate and the analysis is correct, then non-citizens voting might impact some elections. Since I hold to two concerns about voting (that legitimate voters not be denied the vote and that illegitimate voting should not be allowed), this is a matter of concern. Assuming this is occurring, the key concern would be on how to prevent it from happening.

      Interestingly, the voter ID laws would not solve the problem. As the source you provide notes, “We also find that one of the favorite policies advocated by conservatives to prevent voter fraud appears strikingly ineffective. Nearly three quarters of the non-citizens who indicated they were asked to provide photo identification at the polls claimed to have subsequently voted.” So, some other approach would be needed to deter non-citizens from voting.

      The article is neutral about solutions-the authors mention the idea of allowing non-citizens to vote. I have not given the matter much thought, but my intuitive position is that voting should be limited to actual citizens.

      When looking at solutions, the impact of proposed solutions on legitimate voters must also be considered. So, if a solution reduced non-citizen voting, yet also disenfranchised citizens, that would not be a desirable solution.


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