For some time now there has been great criticism of laws passed in some states (Rhode Island among them) requiring voters to produce photo IDs at the time of voting; criticism too of laws aimed at restricting the amount of early (pre-Election Day) voting. It is argued that these laws are motivated by an attempt to “suppress” the votes of minorities, especially African Americans.
And why would anybody wish to suppress the black vote? Because the overwhelming majority of blacks tend to vote Democratic. In 2008, for instance, 95 percent of black voters voted for Obama, and in 2013, 93 percent of black voters voted for him. And this was not simply, or even chiefly, because he is, himself, a black man. Based on the last half-century of presidential elections, we can be pretty sure that any Democratic candidate in 2008 or 2012 would, regardless of race, have got at least 90 percent of the African American vote. Obama picked up a few extra percentage points because of his race, but not many.
In any case, it is alleged by the critics of laws requiring voter photo IDs and laws cutting back on early voting that the motive behind these laws is to suppress the black Democratic vote. And this may well be true in most states; for in almost all states in which such laws have been enacted, the enacting body has been a Republican legislature; and of course it is easy to believe that Republican politicians would like to see smaller numbers of Democratic voters. However, this was not the case in Rhode Island, where it was a Democratic General Assembly overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats that enacted the photo ID law. Whatever the motive of the Rhode Island General Assembly may have been, it was certainly not to suppress Democratic voter turnout.
Critics of these laws argue that they are not at all necessary, as the amount of voter fraud in the United States is minimal or non-existent. While I am sympathetic to the critics (except in the Rhode Island case) when they say that the motive behind the laws has been Democratic voter suppression, I am not at all sympathetic when they proceed to minimize the possibilities of voter fraud. You have to be very ignorant of American political history to imagine that cheating in elections is a non-problem. One can readily imagine that voter fraud is not a problem in places like Sweden and Norway, where everybody is pretty well behaved; but how can anybody imagine that it is not a problem in the United States, where, I regret to say, many people are badly behaved?
It’s not just that we have a high general crime rate in the U.S. In particular, we have always had, at least since the days when the Founding Fathers passed from the scene, very high levels of political corruption. I hope I won’t shock any innocent readers by telling them that high levels of political corruption continue to this very day. And one of the most important species of this corruption has been voter fraud. In the course of American history, many elections have been stolen – at the local, state, and perhaps even national levels. Exactly how many, nobody can be sure; for if an election is well stolen, it will also be relatively well concealed. There has been ballot box stuffing; bribing of voters; deliberate miscounting of votes by election officials; voting by using the names of dead voters; and of course the refusal in the South to allow blacks to vote during the era of race segregation (from about 1877 to 1965), despite the 15th Amendment. Given this terrible history of voter fraud, it is foolish to say that voter fraud is a non-problem.
Today there are three main threats to electoral integrity in the U.S.:
1. The possibility that non-citizens may vote. Given the immense number of non-citizen aliens in the U.S., not to mention illegal aliens, this is a significant danger.
2. Early voting, especially when done by mail ballot, opens the door for semi-coercion of elderly and/or uneducated voters.
3. Computerized voting makes it possible to rig the vote by programming the computer in the “right” way.
We don’t need, as the critics allege, less attention to be paid to the possibility of voter fraud. We need lots and lots and lots of attention.
David Carlin, a professor of sociology and philosophy at CCRI, is a former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate.