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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.

Even 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.

So 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.

They 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:

In 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.

Less 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?

PHOTO: Gracie Hawthorne, volunteer for the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register voters in Mississippi. Photo by Herb Randall.

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re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

Or maybe it has reached a fevered pitch since the Obama White House and AG Eric Holder have dropped charges on clear voter intimidation tactics used by the New Black Panther Party. Thereby giving a silent nod that Black on white "fraud" is ok, but white on black fraud is not.

Which was clearly brought to light an reality by Christopher Coates testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Right on Sept 24,2010.

Maybe that has raised a few alarms, just maybe.

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

Dear Chris Kromm,

Thanks for this story which provides some context (Republican racist tactics from Goldwater on). It also reflects, in the comment by 'Adam' that the right wing activists - with their reverse logic and twisted minds - keep constant watch over democrats in their midst. Howard M. Romaine (and have captured many former progressive institutions of government, such as the civil rights commission.)

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

This is no different than the widespread rumors throughout the south after the Civil war that the votes of freedmen were going to be controlled by their former masters or the unfounded rumors that there was going to be a race riot in Wilmington, NC.

Our failure as a nation to confront racism and the vile legacy of slavery in this country is what allows this pernicious behavior to continue unabated in every election.

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

So the mere fact that the New Black Panther incident happened during the Bush administration and THEY didn't pursue charges definitely means it's Obama and Holders fault---OK---I guess

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

The same people complaining about the New Black Panthers, composed of 2 men stricking fear in the hearts of voting conservatives everywhere, never complain when white people are in black or hispanic voting areas following people around and out of the polling area, taking their pictures and commenting on their voting status, like what was going on in Houston Texas. They never investigate large republican voting areas for voter fraud. Besides, since the one incident with the New Black Panthers 2 years ago, have they been seen or heard from since? I'd say Holder did the job that the Bush administration failed to do with the New Black Panthers, by getting rid of them.

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

To file charges, you need a plaintiff. No one reported being intimidated by the scary black dudes, that day. That is why the Bush DOJ didn't pursue it. http://mediamatters.org/blog/201009240035

No plaintiff? No case. Mn'K. Now get back under your bridge.......

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

Are you Teabagger chicken little balls still whining about that one black guy who had a billy club? You do know he was prosecuted for it, don't you?

Way to go at making a mountain out of a tiny Democratic molehill while completely ignoring the Republican Mt. Everest of nationwide election fraud.

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

Husband went to vote yesterday, he's White, been that way all his American born life, never broke the law, worked for over 30 years and voted at the same precinct for 20 years.

Yesterday, at that same precinct, they didn't have his name for some reason, would not accept his voting card with a valid drivers licsence and forced him to drive over 30 miles away to another precinct.... before it closed of course.

No.... sorry.... not right and completely UN C-O-N-S-T-I-T-U-T-I-O-N-A-L!!!

re: Why the 'voter fraud' myth won't die

Looks like the new Republican NC General Assembly leadership will be pushing the "Honest Elections Act" that will require photo ID from every voter. We've got to get organized to stop them. This would be a disaster for our democracy.