The Fraud of Voter Fraud
A cure in search of a disease.
As New Mexicans go to the polls this month, Secretary of State Dianna Duran would have you believe that many of those voters are casting their ballots illegally. Like her GOP counterparts and Republican-dominated legislatures in other states, Duran has been crusading against a supposed epidemic of "voter fraud." Nefarious wannabe voters are apparently descending on our polling places like election locusts, subverting the very essence of our democracy.
But this turns out to be a "cure" in search of a disease. In New Mexico and other states that purport to be cracking down on voter fraud, the actual numbers of illegally cast ballots keep shrinking as overheated claims come down to reality.
Even back in March 2011, when Duran testified about the supposed problem at a legislative hearing, the numbers were well short of epidemic levels. Of the 1.2 million voters registered in New Mexico, she said 37 had obtained driver's licenses while not being US citizens and had voted in one or more elections between 2003 and 2010. Later, in November 2011, she revised that claim downward to 19 illegal voters. That's less than .0016% of the electorate.
Even those figures may be questionable. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the secretary of state, alleging she violated New Mexico's open-records law by withholding documents relating to her investigation. That case is still in the courts.
The story is much the same in other swing states — which, not coincidentally, seem to be the primary focus of efforts to counter voter fraud. In Colorado and Florida, for example, fewer than one-tenth of 1% of registered voters have been found to actually be ineligible. Colorado, too, has seen ever-shrinking numbers as overblown claims get scrutinized: Original estimates of 11,805 noncitizens on the voting rolls (out of nearly 3.5 million registered voters) shrank to just 141, of whom only 35 have ever really voted.
Voter identification, a pet project of New Mexico House District 38 Rep. Dianne Hamilton of Silver City, is similarly a cure for a problem that's anything but rampant. Nationwide, an exhaustive public-records search by the nonpartisan investigative news project News21 concluded that in-person voter fraud — what voter-ID laws are supposed to thwart — is "virtually nonexistent." News21 identified 2,068 alleged cases of voter fraud since the 2000 election — out of more than 600 million votes cast in presidential elections alone — and only 10 cases of actual in-person voter fraud. The investigation characterized that total as an "infinitesimal amount."
In Pennsylvania, where a new voter-ID law has been challenged in the courts, GOP state officials concede they have no evidence of prior in-person voter fraud in the state.
Why, then, are some politicians so fervently concerned about voter fraud? One hesitates to ascribe pernicious motives to the actions of duly elected public servants, but most critics believe the bottom line is voter suppression. For example, most of the 3,903 voters in Colorado who received letters challenging their status were either Democrats or independents. Nationally, the estimated 11% of US citizens without a current government photo ID are disproportionately poor, elderly, minorities or young adults. All are voting groups that just as disproportionately tend to vote Democratic.
We won't argue the premise that even one illegal vote in a democracy is one too many. But "crackdowns" seeking to eliminate these extremely rare instances of voter fraud risk disenfranchising far more people than the handful of illegal voters.
Maybe instead of worrying about the fewer than two-dozen people who may have voted when they weren't supposed to in New Mexico, we should be more concerned about the 39% of the voting-age population who didn't vote at all in the last presidential election. Rather than working overtime to keep people from voting, our secretary of state might try harder to increase the percentage of New Mexicans who participate in our democracy.
David A. Fryxell is editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.
PO Box 191
Silver City, NM 88062