Vote Wars heat up in VA

This past week has seen a number of breathless reports, particularly from conservative sites, about voter fraud in Virginia. Dead people are registering to vote in Harrisonburg! Undocumented immigrants are voting throughout Virginia! AMERICAN DEMOCRACY IS IN PERIL!

Hold on. Let's see what’s going on here.

First, in Harrisonburg: Apparently a James Madison University student working for the non-profit group HarrisonburgVOTES submitted voter registration forms for 19 people who were deceased. According to the group's head, Joe Fitzgerald, the student acted alone in submitting the forms, and was immediately fired once the deception was discovered. (One of the deceased's family members called the city when they received a letter notifying them of the registration.) No fraudulent votes were cast; the student was apparently a rogue agent, acting for unknown reasons. ("Who the hell knows what his motivations were?" asked Fitzgerald.) The most likely explanation here is that this was a dumb thing done by a college kid - not exactly the first time that has happened.

So that’s just smoke. The fire came from a report issued by the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) that alleged widespread voter fraud in Virginia. Specifically, the report claims that over a thousand non-citizens were registered to vote in eight Virginia counties. More importantly, almost 200 votes were cast by these non-citizens. The report reminded readers that the state's current Attorney General, Mark Herring, won his 2013 election by only 165 votes; the implication here is that illegal votes may have put Herring over the top.

To PILF’s credit, the report identifies significant problems in our electoral process. But when you look deeper, it’s hard to say that the resulting hysteria is justified. As often happens with these fraud allegations, the big numbers concern errors in registration, which – I shouldn't have to point out – are not the same thing as errors in voting. Many incorrect registrations noted by the report were caught by the system; others are clearly the result of non-citizens checking boxes and signing forms without really knowing what they are doing.

These are still problems, of course, and should be corrected, but are not evidence of widespread fraud and corruption. Even the number of votes the PILF report identifies – 186 – were spread out over a 10-year period. The report doesn't actually detail where and when these votes happened, probably because those results are not as scary. However, the report does highlight the fact that "the most alien votes were cast in 2012 followed by 2008, the year President Obama was elected to his first term." (Thanks for the history lesson, PILF; you wouldn't be trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Obama’s election, would you?)

What'' really going on here is what I’ve been describing as the "Vote Wars" - a battle between the two major parties for control over the size of the electorate. In this war, there's a difference in philosophy underlying more practical concerns.

First, the philosophy. Republicans and conservatives want to protect the sanctity of the voting process. They argue that, in the words of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, "Every time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a U.S. citizen." On this view, ANY illegitimate vote weakens democracy, and undermines our confidence in the results of elections; as the PILF report suggested with Herring, false votes may even swing close ones. The bottom line: Protect the electoral process, even if that makes it much harder for some legitimate citizens to vote.

On the other hand, Democrats and progressives want to protect the voting rights of individuals, especially those most vulnerable among the electorate. They would rather have looser rules in order to ensure more participation. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, every obstacle to voting, from advance registration to voter ID, makes it "harder and harder for Americans – particularly African-Americans, the elderly, students and people with disabilities – to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot." The bottom line: make it easier to vote, even if it means that some illegitimate votes may squeeze through.

Both positions are intuitively reasonable, and correspond to differing views of democracy that are prevalent in American history. In the terms of the American Government textbook I use in my classes, Republicans are essentially promoting "elite" democracy, the view that we should largely restrict the electorate to those who are interested and educated. If a lot of citizens do not vote, that's fine; they probably don't know much or don't care about politics. Democrats prefer "popular" democracy, the idea that we should have as much participation as possible; non-voters are a sign of a weak and unstable democracy that does not serve the needs of the people.

Of course, underlying each of these principled positions are more strategic concerns. Both parties know that poor and minority voters tend to vote Democratic. Any efforts to restrict the electorate are also efforts that target the Democratic Party electorate specifically. And so these fights over voting rights might be about principles, but they are also about winning elections.

The problem with the GOP position on voting is there's not much evidence that individual fraud actually happens. The recent report suggests that individualized, illegal voting may be more widespread than previously acknowledged, but the numbers suggest that the problem is still small potatoes compared to the size of the electorate. Voter ID laws have sparked one of the latest battles in this larger war, but they simply don't do much to combat these errors and individual voter fraud.

The irony for the Democratic side, however, is that it is not clear if ID laws actually restrict turnout. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report suggested mixed results, although a more recent working paper from UCSD argues for strong effects. Still, it is possible that whatever keeps people from voting, the lack of ID doesn't seem to be the key factor. (People without IDs often face a number of other obstacles to voting, from lack of education to an inability to get time off from work.)

The bigger lesson from the PILF report is that our elections are a mess - a hodgepodge of state laws run by local officials with political ties to one or both parties. There is plenty of opportunity for corruption, and even more opportunity for bureaucratic snafus. But if the solution is more restrictive voter rolls, as the PILF wants, then plenty of American citizens will lose their right to vote.

A better solution might be national election laws that streamline and regularize the process, ensure sanctity of voting machines, and eliminate unnecessary obstacles to voting. Unfortunately, thanks to a constitutional structure that assigns election responsibilities to the states, such a change would require a constitutional amendment. That’s an unlikely outcome of the Vote Wars considering the different interests and ideologies involved.

Instead, we'll see more reports that scream “VOTER FRAUD!!!” If you come across one of these, I suggest you check the underlying numbers. Maybe more importantly, check your own ideas about voting and democracy.