Employing baseless fear mongering about the (no longer existent) ACORN and other liberal groups that are supposedly trying to steal next week’s elections, conservative “anti-voter-fraud campaigns are popping up across the country, but their biggest rollouts have tended to be in lower-income areas with large minority populations.” From the Illinois Republican Party and Tea Party groups to the right-wing astro-turfing group American Majority Action, a startling number of right-wing groups have rolled out aggressive campaigns to “block Democrats…err, voter fraud, at the polls,” as Mother Jones’ Suzy Khimm sarcastically noted. While campaigns and political parties have long dispatched trained poll watchers and election judges to the polls to look for irregularities, this year, conservative groups are turning to grassroots activists with little or no training in thinly-veiled efforts to suppress liberal voter participation. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin announced on Fox News that “we are all voter-fraud police now,” while American Majority Action lets anyone with an iPhone become a poll watcher with their Voter Fraud app. While combating fraud is of course important, these supposedly well-meaning efforts have a “chilling effect” on voter participation, notes Gerry Hebert, executive director of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center. Conservative groups tend to target their efforts at communities with large minority or Democratic populations, claiming that fraud is more prevalent in these neighborhoods, with the effect of suppressing Democratic voters and disenfranchising minorities. Other times, groundless allegations of voter fraud are simply used to rile up the base before Election Day and undermine the credibility of opponents, but have the dangerous effect of also undermining voters’ faith in the electoral process.
SUPPRESSION: This year’s election has been riven with conservative voter suppression efforts. This spring, the progressive group One Wisconsin Now uncovered collusion between the Wisconsin Republican Party and state’s Republican attorney general to engage in “voter caging,” a tactic in which groups attempt to disenfranchise voters by sending mail to addressees on the voter rolls — often targeting minority communities — and then compile lists of addressees from which the mail is returned undelivered, using that information to purge voter rolls. In Houston, the non-partisan Texans for Public Justice has filed a formal complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against the right-wing group King Street Patriots for engaging in voter suppression efforts. The Patriots have been targeting voters in Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee‘s (D-TX) district, who said in a statement, “I was very concerned when I was informed of multiple incidents in which voters in predominately minority neighborhoods of my congressional district were intimidated and harassed. These incidents were documented by both the electronic and print media.” In Indiana, a “shoving match” broke out Saturday at a polling station after a GOP official was caught — illegally — photographing voters “in an intimidating manner.” The conservative Heritage foundation also puts out a “candidate book” every year which encourages Republican candidates to push for more suppressive voting rules, such as requiring voters to have photo IDs at the polls. Voter fraud hysteria is “happening to a degree we haven’t seen in years,” said Wendy Weiser, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “They can be highly confrontational. That can cross the line into intimidation and voter suppression.” Some conservative groups even acknowledge that their tactics may flout election laws, “but they suggest that such a violation is worth the risk if there’s the potential of rooting out acts of electoral skulduggery.” Right-wing organizers ResistNet candidly admit that their activities could be illegal, but slyly suggest how activists might be able to skirt the rules: “It is illegal to video the polling place, but you can video the birds on top of the polling place or the dog sitting in front of it. If your video of birds or dogs happens to include voter vans, well… ”
THE WRONG ANGLE: No where in the country have voter fraud allegations played a more significant role in the election than in the heated Nevada Senate race, where Republican challenger Sharron Angle has — without evidence — accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) of trying to “steal this election.” In a fundraising plea to supporters, Angle’s attorney Cleta Mitchell wrote, “As Sharron Angle’s campaign attorney, I am sorry to report that the Democrats and their cronies are up to their same old tricks of trying to manipulate the election in hopes of skewing the results in their favor.” The only evidence Mitchell offered is that the Angle campaign had “received reports that some teachers union representatives were offering Starbucks cards to people to get them to vote for Harry Reid.” “Coffee and doughnuts was the entirety of the substance of the Angle allegations,” the Las Vegas Sun reports, but Mitchell confidently concluded that “what Harry Reid is doing is clearly illegal.” Meanwhile, an outside group called the Nevada Action Coalition has charged Reid with unsubstantiated accusations of election impropriety, telling supporters “the dark side has secret plans for this election.” They’ve alleged that voting machines have been sabotaged to change people’s votes to Reid, and have been holding seminars to train “lots of watchers” while encouraging voters to call their “Poll Watcher Hot Line.” But as the Sun reported, while the group bills itself as an independent “group of ordinary American citizens,” a non-profit group run by Angle donated almost $100,000 to the Nevada Action Coalition in 2008. Moreover, far beyond unsubstantiated voter fraud allegations, the Coalition claims that the federal government wants to merge the U.S. with “the corruption, socialism, poverty and population of Mexico and Canada” and designate a section of Kansas City as sovereign Mexican territory, according to its website. Election officials have squarely dismissed these fraud allegations, saying they had “not received any credible complaints of any fraud taking place.” Larry Lomax, the election official in Clark County, Nevada’s largest, said it is “technically impossible to pre-program” voting machines. “We have not had a single complaint filed,” said Secretary of State Ross Miller, who oversees elections and set up a robust Election Integrity Task Force in 2008. “[U]unfortunate and frankly,” Miller said the allegations are “irresponsible, because they undermine the public’s faith in the electoral process.” Unsurprisingly, Fox News host Glenn Beck jumped to Angle’s defense, confidently asserting — without any evidence — that Miller was merely doing the bidding of right-wing bogeyman billionaire George Soros and the Service Employees International Union. Surveying the baseless voter fraud allegations, veteran Nevada political journalist John Ralston wrote, “I am exhausted at the ignorance and repulsed by the vitriol.”
NONEXISTENT FRAUD: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the right-wing voter fraud hysteria is how rare voter fraud actually is. In 2002, the Bush administration made cracking down on voter fraud a top priority and after five years of investigations across the entire country, they brought only 86 convictions — hardly enough to sway even a single election, let alone a existential threat to American democracy. Moreover, most of the cases were “misunderstandings about voter eligibility, such as felons who voted without knowing it was illegal.” The administration found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” A 2007 study by the Brennan Center reached a similar conclusion, reporting that “the vast majority of ‘fraud’ cases, it found, were due to typographical errors.” Slate’s Chris Beam has also detailed how exceedingly difficult it would be to actually commit voter fraud on any scale that would actually sway elections, considering that every person involved risks five years in jail and and a $10,000 fine. Meanwhile, in the 2008 Supreme Court Case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which upheld Indiana’s law requiring voters to provide photographic identification, only a single case of fraud was deemed worthy of citation. Of course, the right has a long long history of fomenting conspiracy theories about voter fraud in efforts to actually suppress participation.