We The People

Voter Fraud and Income Inequality in the Voting Booth

How could anyone object to a campaign against fraud?  In a society mesmerized by the presence of fraud everywhere – on Wall Street, in corporate headquarters, in politics and, of course, on street corners – it looks all too plausible for government to mount a campaign against voter fraud as well.  But looking closer reveals that the campaign itself is fraudulent.

Risa Goluboff, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and Dahlia Lithwick, a Senior Editor at Slate, pointed out:  “There is no evidence for widespread vote fraud, despite Bush administration efforts to find some.”  They add: “a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. (See, in Slate, “A Fraudulent Case.”)

The real purpose of the campaign, they argue, is to disenfranchise African Americans.  Take the proposed requirement that voters show a government-issued photo ID:  “The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that while about 12 per­cent of Americans don’t have a government-issued photo ID, the figure for African-Americans is closer to 25 percent, and in some Southern states perhaps higher.”

But it looks to me, more broadly, like a campaign against the poor.  To be sure, a disproportionate number of blacks are impoverished, but they are far from the only ones.  The usual photo IDs are a drivers licenses and passports, both of which reflect a certain social and economic standing.  People who don’t travel for business or pleasure won’t usually bother to get passports.  And a usable drivers license suggests access to a car — and lots of people don’t have those.

There was a time when only those who had property could vote.  That time is long past.  But this amounts to a newer version of the property requirement.  Earlier there were poll taxes, then literacy tests, residency requirements or other complex tests of residency.  All of those made it easier for those who have money to get into the polling booth.  The new requirements proposed to combat “voter fraud” are more subtle, but they also work to discourage and sometimes prevent the poor from casting ballots.

As the poor get poorer and the rich richer, there is a growing likelihood that the disparity will become a political issue.  The rich of course have a disproportionate influence on the electoral process, as it is, as candidates need their contributions to mount expensive campaigns.  Finding clever ways of disenfranchising the poor is another strategy for the rich to protect their wealth.

This can happen because most of us are governed by unconscious assumptions about fraud, about race and about poverty.  A campaign against voter fraud looks good on the surface.  But is actually caters to our prejudices, while promoting a conservative agenda.

Frankly, I don’t think that the poor will be misled.  They are used to reading between the lines.  It’s the rest of us who might unwittingly be taken in, allowing this campaign to succeed.