For decades, Republicans have been claiming that ballot 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 smokescreen for depressing the votes of Democrats. 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, but not ID cards from state universities much less welfare, food-stamp or Medicaid cards.
Serious research found that the actual number of verified improper voting, 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 decade using a broader definition, identified 32. More than a dozen academic studies found the same range.
Yet all of the hysteria about ballot fraud only intensified under Donald Trump, who claimed based on no evidence whatever that between three and five million people had illegally voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump named a commission, co-chaired by the champion vote-suppressor, former Kansas Secretary of State 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, 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 has received for committing a multi-trillion dollar fraud that crashed the entire economy.
Well, some genuine, systematic voting 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 Ninth 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 paid 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 evidence that Harris used similar dirty tricks to defeat his opponent in the Republican primary. In Bladen County, Harris won a suspicious 96 percent of the primary vote, using similar tactics with mail-in ballots. Efforts are now underway to dump Harris in favor of a less tainted Republican candidate
State officials will almost surely order a new election. If Harris were somehow certified as the winner, the incoming House would refuse to seat him. Either way, the election is likely to get a do-over that the Democrat could well win.
This brand of voting fraud is on a par with Republican dirty tricks, winding back from Kris Kobach, through Richard Nixon, to the “ballot security” program run by one William Rehnquist in Arizona in 1964, aimed at intimidating black and Latino voters, long before Rehnquist was elevated to the Supreme Court.
So here is a modest proposal. Republicans have demanded a crackdown on ballot 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 vanishingly rare (except apparently among Republicans in North Carolina), cases of improper blockage of 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, and thus the ability to threaten and intimidate.
The history of state officials, mostly in the South, using a variety of hazing techniques, ranging from bogus exams of knowledge of the state constitution all the way 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.
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. For starters, Harris should be prosecuted.
The Court, in Shelby, 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 VRA, 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.