I admit, I squirmed a lot when I watched Bob Costa debate vote fraud on MSNBC last Friday. And it wasn’t because I was worried he was in danger of being lacerated by the jagged edges of one of Al Sharpton’s broken sentences.
It was uncomfortable watching the other lefty panelists try to out-smarm each other by beating Costa over the head with a new Brennan Center for Justice report that purportedly shows vote fraud to be nonexistent. The report points out that a minuscule 0.0002 percent of votes cast in Wisconsin in 2004 were “fraudulent,” each one resulting from an ineligible felon having voted.
The Brennan Center report has quickly gained traction among opponents of new state laws that require voters to show photo identification to vote. Stephen Colbert has routinely ridiculed those that believe vote fraud exists, warning that “our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere.” Liberals have used to the report to mock RNC chair Reince Priebus’ contention that Wisconsin is “riddled” with vote fraud, as he told MSNBC’s Martin Bashir.
The Brennan Center for Justice, of course, is funded by liberal billionaire George Soros. (As a bonus, the center boasts Words with Friends enthusiast Alec Baldwin as an advisory-board member.) And its report doesn’t withstand even the most cursory scrutiny.
I used to have a debate with one of my colleagues about which states were the most corrupt. He would show me a list of all the states with the most public corruption convictions and declare those states to be the worst in terms of ethics. I answered that he shouldn’t rely solely on arrest and conviction statistics. After all, wouldn’t it be a sign of corruption if all these ethical breaches were occurring and a state decided to look away and not arrest anyone? If that were the case, the most corrupt states would be the ones that didn’t enforce their corruption laws, where nobody was arrested. (As I recall, this particular argument ended with me dodging an airborne egg-salad sandwich.)
Similarly, mere statistics are a terrible way to determine whether vote fraud is occurring. Since the Brennan Center report deals with Wisconsin specifically, I’ll explain why in excruciating detail.
For one, under the previous Wisconsin law — which didn’t require voters to demonstrate who they were — vote fraud was virtually impossible to prove. If someone wanted to vote more than once, all they needed to do was know a name on the voter list, then use that name. That name could belong to a legitimate voter who didn’t show up to vote, or to a voter who doesn’t actually exist. Laws relaxing voter-registration requirements may have allowed groups like ACORN to stuff the rolls with names of fictitious people, which could then have been used to cast votes without any identification. Once that vote is cast, it is impossible to track down who came in and voted using that name.
In 2008, the Milwaukee Police Department issued a report detailing vote fraud that occurred during the 2004 presidential election. The police task force that issued the study said they believed 16 workers from the John Kerry campaign and third-party groups “committed felony crimes” that went unprosecuted.
The MPD found one property where 128 individuals were registered to vote — all of whom signed up for the 2004 election. Twenty-nine voters were registered at a county office building that featured no residential living. The MPD report found instances of double-voting, unopened absentee ballots appearing after the election, and deceased people voting. None of these are counted in the Brennan Center report, which has an extremely narrow definition of “fraud” — people voting who know they are ineligible to vote (felons, for instance).
The MPD task force also questioned the validity of several homeless shelters — one featured 162 registered voters, another boasted 136. As pointed out by the report, many of these homeless individuals were registered at multiple locations — and since identification wasn’t necessary to vote, anyone could have used these people’s names to vote. According to the police report, “this vote portability and the abject poverty that defines homelessness, make these unfortunate individuals vulnerable to become the tools of voter fraud by those who would exploit the homeless.”
Furthermore, the areas where vote fraud is most likely to occur are also those where it is least likely to end in prosecution. Vote fraud is most prevalent in big cities with large populations — which are almost uniformly represented by Democratic district attorneys. There likely aren’t a lot of Democratic DA’s who wake up every morning and say, “Gee, I wonder if I can demonstrate to the public that my party is engaging in vote fraud, and in the process, cost myself votes.”
In fairness, it wouldn’t occur to me to risk imprisonment to cast a few extra votes. (Then again, it wouldn’t occur to me to pepper-spray entire groups of shoppers on Black Friday in order to be the first to purchase discount electronics, but apparently people do it.) However, if I knew that the laws on the books made it impossible for me to be caught – and that even if I were caught I wouldn’t be prosecuted — it would ease my conscience a great deal. In this sense, it can be argued that more vote fraud takes place because so few people are ever arrested and convicted.
Think about all the times you’ve been told that sexual assault occurs more than we think, as victims are hesitant to come forward and press charges. (A claim I believe, incidentally.) What if we just used arrest and conviction statistics to determine how often women are assaulted? Should we assume nobody in Major League Baseball used steroids in the late 1990s because no players were suspended?
The public gets this — polls routinely show widespread support for a photo-ID requirement to vote, which would at least end the practice of name-poaching. There may be very little vote fraud; there may be a great deal. In the absence of a photo-ID requirement, we just didn’t know. We do, however, know that the bogus Brennan Center report is hardly dispositive.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.