GOP-Backed Voter Fraud Laws Aim To Disenfranchise Students

The new laws claim to combat a problem—in-person voting fraud—that doesn’t exist. But they do discourage members of Democratic-leaning groups from casting votes at all.

Clay Jackson, The Advocate Messenger / AP Photos

Twenty-one-year old Gillian Demers says she was “more than a little afraid” when she received a letter from the state warning she may be breaking the law—by registering to vote.

Last September, the University of Maine senior received a letter (see below) from Maine’s secretary of state, Republican Charles Summers, questioning her right to vote in her newly adopted state. Two hundred and five other students received the same letter, sent after the state’s GOP chairman, Charlie Webster, asked his GOP colleague to investigate if the students had the right to vote in Maine.

Unless she met certain bureaucratic regulations like registering for a Maine driver’s license, Summers’s letter said, Demers would have to revoke her residency or be in violation of a law that could mean up to six months in jail.

The letter is just one example of new laws and regulations rolled out largely by Republican-controlled statehouses over the last two years. Purportedly aimed at preventing voter fraud, the laws suppress the votes of students and minorities and, according to court records and interviews with political insiders from both parties, at least some GOP officials know it.

Since Republicans took control of 10 new governorships and 11 state legislatures in 2010, 19 states have passed bills changing their voting laws—changes that could disenfranchise as many as 5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, according to a report from New York University’s left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

That’s more than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections. In 2008, 66 percent of all voters under 30 and 96 percent of all black voters backed Barack Obama, according to exit polls.

In Florida, a swing state known for its election troubles, internal emails show that senior Republican officials molded a controversial elections law to improve the party’s chances of winning the crucial state. Although these party leaders—and the GOP legislators who passed the law—claim that the legislation was designed to fight voter fraud, the memos show that the Republicans know little voter fraud exists.

Indeed, voter fraud is an invented enemy, said one Republican former state senator, employed to pass politically advantageous laws in anticipation of the presidential election.

“Their best excuse is to cite widespread voter fraud, even though there’s no evidence of that,” said John Brueggeman, who was ousted from his Montana state Senate seat by the Tea Party in 2010, of the legislators passing the laws.

Though the bills differ state to state, they are based on a so-called model bill disseminated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a business-friendly consortium of legislators and corporations funded by corporations like Exxon Mobil and private backers like the Koch brothers.

Demers, meanwhile, filled out the appropriate paperwork and kept her residency in Maine. Then she completed her thesis on Maine’s new voter-access laws.

Summers’s investigation found no evidence of students engaging in voter fraud.

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“Americans of all political persuasions can agree that it is the integrity of the vote that safeguards the integrity of our democratic process,” Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, recently told The Daily Beast. “When that integrity is compromised, we must act.”

Yet after five years of searching for voter fraud from 2002 to 2007, George W. Bush’s Justice Department found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections,” The New York Times reported. Just 96 people were indicted, and 70 convicted, for voting fraud from October 2002 to September 2005—and many simply filled out their voting registration cards incorrectly.

A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in-person voter fraud, according to the Brennan Center. “I haven’t seen a single documented case of it ever happening,” said Mimi Marziani, a lawyer for the Brennan Center, of impersonation fraud.

Yet since 2010, five states have made it illegal for students to use their college I.D. cards to vote;* in many instances, only government-issued I.D.s are permitted. Five states have reduced early voting periods (Democrats tend to vote early more often than Republicans). And three states have restricted the ability of third-party groups, who often register students and/or minorities, to register voters.

Three more states passed laws that make it more difficult for individuals to register.

Today more than 21 million Americans lack the identification now necessary to vote. The documents required to obtain proper I.D. “cost more than the poll tax did when it was declared unconstitutional,” according to the Brennan Center’s Michael Waldman.

“It’s laughable that voter impersonation fraud will sway an election,” said U.C. Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, whose new ebook The Fraudulent Fraud Squad: Understanding the Battle Over Voter ID argues that Republicans have tricked voters into being concerned about voter impersonation fraud. The fraud that does occur, he said, “invariably involves election officials or absentee ballots, neither of which is a type of fraud that would be stopped by voter ID."

In fact, experts said, the problems Republicans have tried to frame as “voter fraud” tend to arise from systemic errors or plain old accidents, not malice: voters mistakenly filling out registration forms or misunderstanding eligibility rules, or election officials mailing ballots to incorrect addresses or to ineligible voters, for example.

Of the more than 185 million voter records in the United States, more than 16 million—or 11 percent—are inaccurate, a study by Harvard social scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Eitan Hersh showed. In 2008, 1 million Americans could not vote because of voter registration errors.

Even the most famous recent “voter fraud” scandal, when the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, registered fake voters in 2008, had no impact on the election. Because the organization paid employees based on how many people they registered to vote, some employees filled out invalid or plain phony voter-registration cards. But no one attempted to use those illegal enrollments to actually vote.

“Voter fraud isn't our problem,” said Matthew Singer, a veteran ‘get out the vote’ campaigner, “Terribly managed systems [are].”

In Florida, however, the state that decided the 2000 presidential election, the GOP-controlled legislature is tackling the nonexistent fraud problem with a new bill that makes it more difficult for key groups (that tend to favor Democrats) to cast votes.

Internal emails show that senior state Republican officials, including one who was embroiled in scandal during the 2000 presidential race, know that voter fraud is rare, but nonetheless pushed GOP legislators to pass the bill—which curtails early voting, suffocates voter-registration drives, and prohibits constituents from changing their addresses at the polls—for political reasons.

“I would suggest we try to come up with at least some anecdotal evidence that there was abuse or double voting,” wrote Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, general counsel to the Republican Party of Florida, in a memo to fellow party officials, legislators, and staffers.

In 2000, Mitchell was accused of disenfranchising thousands of Floridians by tampering with voting lists. He instituted a policy that led to thousands of non-felons being wrongly included on rolls reserved for criminals, who are barred from voting in the Sunshine State.

These emails confirm what former Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer told Al Sharpton earlier this month: “In three and a half years as chairman in Florida, I never had one meeting where voter fraud was discussed as a real issue effecting elections,” he said.

“It’s a marketing tool ... The main purpose behind it is to make sure that what happened in 2008 never happens again.”

“The student vote is certainly under attack,” said Heather Smith, executive director of Rock the Vote, the nonpartisan group aimed at registering students and other younger voters. “There are a number of people who got to power without the student vote [in 2010] and they’re passing laws to make sure that it stays that way.”

With the election scheduled for Nov. 6—just after students have settled into their new dorm rooms or apartments—the law’s provision banning address changes will have a particularly detrimental effect on Florida’s youth, said Smith.

“If they don’t like how certain people are voting,” Smith said, “you’re supposed to go out and get them to vote for you, not stop them from voting.”

But in their private communications, senior Republicans disagreed.

“Even if there aren’t massive cases of fraud, it is a political nightmare,” wrote then-Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Andy Palmer of the address-changing provision. “Thousands (or even hundreds)” of voters changing districts can cause “havoc,” he explained in an internal memo one month before the law was passed, because address changes distort campaign managers’ voter turnout predictions.

The provision “needs to stay,” he wrote.

When asked to comment, Palmer wrote in an email that his "reference was clearly directed to cases of prosecuted voter fraud being relatively rare.”

“But the point is,” he addd, “ANY fraud—whether it is prosecuted or not—undermines the integrity of elections and this law was passed in an effort to eliminate voter fraud in Florida elections.”

Mitchell could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, as emails circulated amongst state Republicans, Florida’s Supervisors of Elections, independent monitors in place to ensure “fair, honest and accurate elections,” complained to the party's officials and legislators that the provision was unconstitutional.

Just days before Palmer and Mitchell stressed its political importance, a delegation of SOE representatives called the law “a violation of the National Voting Rights Act.”

Earlier this month, a three-judge panel agreed, finding the law discriminatory against minorities and ordering five Florida counties to re-extend their early voting periods. (Under the Voting Rights Act, election rules in counties with a history of racial discrimination are subject to federal approval.) But early voting in Florida’s other 62 counties remains subject to the restrictions of the new law.

Last week, another judge signaled that he would lift the law’s ban on third-party voter registration, which has severely hampered the Democrat’s voter-registration efforts. To date, Democrats have registered 11,365 people in Florida; in 2008, they registered 259,894. The Republicans, meanwhile, have registered 128,039 people.

“At the end of the day,” said Brueggeman, the former state senator, “if you don’t have a message and a vision that really resonates with people, you don’t deserve to win.”

“If you have to resort to tactics like this,” he said, “you don’t deserve to win.”

This article was reported by Jake Heller, Olivia Smith, Laura Fosmire, and Mah Sabbagh of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. They were supervised by Walt Bogdanich and Chris Drew.

*While Wisconsin's law technically allows students to use their school I.D.s to vote, no postsecondary school in the state issued an identification card that met the law's other stringent requirements when the law was passed. UW-Madison later changed its student I.D. to meet the law's requirements.