Why the 'Voter Fraud' Myth Won't Die

Most serious political experts know that real, documented voter fraud is an extremely small problem.

When the Department of Justice under President Bush launched a crackdown on fraud in 2002, five years later it only had 86 convictions to show for the effort. That's .00007 percent of the 122 million people [pdf] who voted for president in the 2004 elections.

if the DOJ's aggressive efforts only caught 1 percent of the actual
fraud going on, it would still be one of the smallest problems facing
our electoral system. For example, an MIT study last year found that
cracks in our country's patchwork voter registration system kept up to 3 million registered and fully-qualified voters from casting a ballot.

why does the phantom of voter fraud keep appearing? The biggest reason
is that powerful forces with very deep pockets are able to relentlessly
push the message. In 2010, independent groups with mysterious
millionaire donors -- such as American Majority Action, peddler of a voter fraud iPhone app -- have joined with Tea Party activists, Republicans and media outlets like Fox News to bring hysteria about voter fraud to a fever pitch.

purveyors of voter fraud fear also have decades of practice. The modern
crusade against voter fraud started in the civil rights era of the
1960s, with growing anxieties among white politicians and voters over
the growing power of black and urban voters.

As historian Rick Perlstein documents,
Republicans tapped into -- and inflamed -- these fears with outrageous
claims of black voter fraud, which not only riled up the conservative
base, but also laid the groundwork for "anti-fraud" campaigns that could
depress Democratic turnout.

In 1964, the Republican National
Committee launched "Operation Eagle Eye," which appointed a "ballot
security" official in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
(Sidenote: This is also where future Supreme Court Justice William
Rehnquist, an aid to Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, cut his
political teeth.)

Here's a description of what the Republican anti-fraud program included:

one state, Minnesota, 'Operation Ballot Security' issued a seven-page
single-space private memorandum detailing a variety of methods for
challenging voters at the polls, with instructions to discourage helpful
judges in Democratic precincts, to cut off waiting
lines in Democratic precincts but not in Republican precincts, and to
encourage stalling in Democratic precincts while preventing stalling in
Republican precincts.

The Minnesota document goes so far as to
state its purpose, not as encouraging each American to exercise his
right to vote freely but 'to safeguard the investment of time, money,
and effort that the Republican Party, its volunteers, its candidates,
and their volunteers have made in this election.

As for specific instructions, the Republican memorandum says: 'If any
questions or dispute arises, refer to the pertinent authority cited
below and when it is to your party's interest insist that the law be followed."

What's striking is how little the strategy and tactics have changed over
the last 46 years. For an October 22, 1964 story in the Wall Street
Journal, reporter Stanley Penn asked a "ballot security' activists about
his plans:

Penn quoted one 'ballot security' official as saying he
planned to equip his poll watchers with cameras to frighten people into
believing that voting irregularities can be photographed. He wrote: "The
official notes that even if poll watchers don't now how to use the
cameras, potential Democratic wrong-doers may be frightened off."

Today the favored tools are video cameras and iPhone apps -- but they're still taking pictures to confuse and intimidate voters, too.

than a month before Election Day in 1962, a Republican group in Detroit
called "The Committee for Honest Elections" rolled out some other
familiar tactics:

* Mail 159,000 copies of a
letter misrepresenting the Michigan election law to 'high mobility'
areas that were predominantly Democratic. The letter created the
impression that anyone who had moved 30 days before the election could
not vote. It also appealed for informers to come forward and report
suspected cases of voter fraud.

* Plan to flood these Democratic areas with fliers that said: 'WANTED--FOR VOTER FRAUD.'

* Recruit 600 'challengers' who would use 'Honest Ballot Association'
credentials to indiscriminately challenge voters on election day.

Sound familiar?

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