Why Voter Fraud Is So Rare
What the experts know that the scaremongers are deliberately ignoring.
Kevin Kennedy has been the state’s chief election official since 1983. In 29 years he’s seen little voter fraud. “Have we had significant issues with this? The answer is no,” says Kennedy, executive director of the Government Accountability Board.
The board oversees 72 county clerks and 1,851 municipal clerks, who directly run elections. Have they encountered big problems with fraud? Nope, says Kennedy. “They feel it is their job to prevent or detect fraud. I think to a certain degree they are insulted when people say we have rampant fraud.”
Reince Priebus, head of the national Republican Party Committee has charged that Wisconsin’s election system was “absolutely riddled with voter fraud.” He offered no evidence of this assertion, but has argued along with other Republicans that photo ID is the solution.
Kennedy says the board has found about 20 instances of voter fraud in any statewide election dating back to 2000 (and this is out of nearly 6 million votes cast in presidential elections alone), mostly felons ineligible to vote because they haven’t completed probation or parole. Usually, Kennedy says, it’s a mistake by a felon who doesn’t understand the law.
There are also occasional examples of double voting. “It’s usually people with a second residence who insist they have the right to vote in both places,” Kennedy notes. Since the state has created one unified, state-wide voter list in 2006, officials can immediately check post-election and nab any violator. But that rarely occurs, Kennedy says.
Photo ID, in any event, won’t prevent voting by ineligible felons and may have little impact on double voting. Republicans have instead argued that photo ID is needed to prevent voter impersonation — someone voting under another person’s name. Kennedy says the state rarely encounters such a case. It mostly occurs when a poll worker mistakenly checks the wrong person’s name on the poll list. But the state’s newest requirement — all voters must sign their name — makes this mistake much less likely, Kennedy notes.
For Kennedy, the greatest prevention against any voter fraud is the severe penalties under the law: a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to 3 years and 6 months, or both. If it’s a federal election the penalty goes up to five years in prison.
That’s heavy punishment and what does the voter gain? “People will cheat if there’s a payoff,” Kennedy notes, “but for one vote?”
The cheater, moreover, would have to know the person he was impersonating hadn’t already voted that day. He would have to be sure a poll worker didn’t know who he was, or what the person he is impersonating looks like. Add in the time it takes to to falsify a utility bill or other documents to create a fake identity; that’s a lot of effort for one lousy vote.
Republicans like Preibus have emphasized the potential for voter fraud in presidential elections. But Wisconsin has had some of the nation’s closest elections and the margin was still nearly 6,000 votes in 2000 and 11,000 in 2004. It would require a huge conspiracy — thousands of people to cast so many fake votes. And how would the conspirators know how many extra votes they would need? And how would a conspiracy this vast be kept secret? If you’re going to put in all that effort, why not just work on getting out the vote, and avoid five years in jail?
The idea of a widespread fraud has been shot down repeatedly. A joint investigation in 2004 by then U.S. Attorney Stephen Biskupic (appointed by a Republican president) and then District Attorney E. Michael McCann (a Democrat) found some isolated instances of illegal votes (mostly ineligible felons) and no evidence of a “conspiracy” to commit voter fraud. A 2008 investigation in Milwaukee County by District Attorney John Chisholm (Democrat), and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (Republican), resulted in 20 prosecutions, again mostly ineligible felons.
Between 2002 and 2005, the U.S. Justice Department made the prosecution of voter fraud a top priority. Out of the hundreds of millions of votes cast nationally during that period, the department charged only 38 cases, only one of which involved impersonating another voter.
The Brennan Center did an exhaustive study of voter fraud and concluded “it is both irrational and extremely rare…Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.” Examining elections in 2004, it found that voter fraud happened 0.0009% of the time in Washington State and 0.00004% in Ohio. The Center also studied 250 cases of alleged voter fraud presented before the Indiana Supreme Court and found not one proven case of a fraudulent vote that photo ID could prevent.
Last month the results of a Carnegie-Knight-funded investigative reporting project by News21 were announced. Its nationwide analysis of 2,068 cases of alleged election fraud over the past dozen years found just 10 cases of alleged in-person voter impersonation since 2000. With 146 million registered voters in the U.S., that amounts to one for every 15 million prospective voters.
The investigation also examined the list of about 375 alleged election fraud cases compiled by the Republican National Lawyers Association. It found just 33 cases resulted in convictions or guilty pleas — and not one case of voter impersonation fraud.
Kennedy believes the statute’s heavy penalties make voter fraud unlikely. But he says photo ID will help further assure the public the system has integrity.
But at what price? In Pennsylvania, which passed a photo ID law, the state Transportation Department has estimated that 9 percent of registered voters, or 758,000 people, lack a photo ID. Many of those are minority voters living in urban areas like Milwaukee. How many hundreds of thousands of those voters will be denied a chance to vote in the hope of someday, maybe, nabbing a case of voter impersonation?
Ben Poston did yet another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story using cherry-picked quotes in an attempt to convince readers, once again, that the Fire & Police Commission should not hire the PRI Management Group to audit the Milwaukee Police Department.
I have previously pointed out how badly slanted Poston’s story was. Poston, undaunted, has now managed to find two more aldermen to agree with him that the firm should not be hired. He’s now up to four. But just one, Ald. Jim Bohl, sits on the Public Safety Committee that oversees this issue. What do the other committee members think?
As I’ve previously written, Ald. Terry Witkowski, vice-chair of the committee, called it “ludicrous” that the firm would do a biased report and said he had no problem with the hiring. So naturally Poston didn’t provide readers with Witkowski’s opinion.
Ald. Bob Bauman, another member of that committee, emailed me to say he did not oppose the hiring of PRI Management Group, but added that “it would not matter if I did since the F&P Commission is not accountable to the council. The council has very little to do with day to day police (and fire) department operations due to provisions of state law.”
Nope, Bauman wasn’t quoted by Poston, either. The newspaper of record has become a broken record, playing only the sounds of those who agree with its position.
People: Kevin Kennedy, Reince Priebus, Robert Bauman, Terry Witkowski
Government: Government Accountability Board, Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission