Fans of Arkansas's voter-identification law and similar laws in other states should pay homage to a Tulane University professor who rounded up all the evidence of why such laws are needed, which has been lacking in legislative debates and in courts where the laws are challenged.
The evidence was missing in the trial this spring before a Pulaski County judge, who ruled that the law was illegal because the Constitution forbids the legislature to impose voting requirements beyond those in the Constitution. The law remains in effect while the Supreme Court ponders.
Justin Levitt, a voting expert on the Tulane law faculty in New Orleans, scoured election records and media reports on all United States elections since 2000. He chased down accounts of people going to the polls and impersonating a registered voter, regardless of whether the culprits were convicted, charged or even identified.
More than 1 billion votes were cast in those elections and he found exactly 31 reports that people pretended to be someone else and voted in their place, which is the only election fraud that ID laws might stop. The photo ID laws require voters to present an official photo identification — a driver's license, passport or another government-issued picture ID. Absentee ballots in Arkansas cannot be counted unless official IDs accompany them.
That's right: 1 billion votes in 14 years but only 31 reported instances of people voting illegally by impersonating legal voters, none in Arkansas.
A few egregious examples:
Mark Lacasse bragged at school about voting in place of his daddy, who was out of town, in the 2004 New Hampshire presidential primary. He was convicted and did community service.
Jack Crowder III used his deceased father's voter registration card to vote in the 2008 presidential primary in Baytown, Texas. He pled guilty and was fined $200.
Hazel James arranged for her son to use his father's registration form in a city election in Tarrant County, Texas, in 2011, apparently so that the young man could help elect her as Democratic precinct chairman. The father discovered that someone had voted in his name when he went to the polls and reported it. Mama was indicted.
Most voter impersonations weren't solved. In a dozen or so cases across the 14 years, someone showed up to vote and found that someone else had signed his or her registration card and had voted without an election clerk spotting the forgery.
Let's be clear that the 31 impersonation reports did not include a score of others where people used fake driver's licenses to cast someone else's ballot, sometimes after a voter had died but before his name had been purged from the rolls. But unless a fake ID is so crude that an election clerk spots it or a clerk happens to know the voter, photo ID laws won't catch them.
No one can be surprised by the scant instances of voter impersonation. We have a sad history of election fraud in the United States and a particularly colorful one in Arkansas, but the fraud is by election officials — poll clerks and judges, county clerks, sheriffs and others who handle the ballots, machines or tally sheets and who won't be caught by an ID law. A person has little incentive to risk impersonating another person for a single vote.
The late Tom Glaze, the Supreme Court justice who spent his early years as Arkansas's chief scourge of election crooks, turned up lots of dirty tricks. In Conway County, precinct doors would be shut for an hour in the slack late afternoon while the election clerks searched affidavit books for people who hadn't voted and marked ballots for them.
The Arkansas ID law, which the legislature enacted last year over Governor Beebe's veto, won't clean up elections, but the first big election under the law — the primaries and judicial election in May — demonstrated conclusively that the law is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. That is to reduce voting among those who tend to vote for the wrong people.
Republicans pass ID laws when they gain a majority in the legislature. They are the latest gambit in the long struggle between parties and factions to curtail or discourage voting by the other side. Republican leaders were occasionally frank about the goal. The photo ID requirement shrinks voting by minorities, the disabled and frail old folks, who tend to vote absentee or get to the polls with difficulty, often because they don't drive.
In 2010, the previous Arkansas midterm primary, 471,615 people voted; this May, the first big election under the ID law, in spite of abundant hotly contested elections, only 346,318 voted.
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette survey showed that 1,036 absentee ballots were thrown out that day because voters didn't submit all the evidence that they were who they said they were. No evidence surfaced that even one was not a bona-fide voter.
Of the 1,036 disqualified votes, 774 were Democrats, 234 were Republicans and the party preference of the other 19 couldn't be determined because the counties did not report them or they voted only in the nonpartisan judicial election. They were mostly in the Delta, where blacks are a sizable part of the electorate.
The chairman of the Mississippi County Election Commission said voting officials knew most of the 172 absentee voters who were disfranchised. "I've known them for years and years, but we couldn't count their ballots," he said.
Those 1,036 do not include those who were turned away because they didn't carry a photo ID or didn't go to the polls because they had no driver's license or dreaded the hassle.
The Supreme Court can't consider the evidence, but you put the two sets of numbers on the scales of justice: The 31 or so of 1 billion over 14 years who voted illegally by impersonating another voter and who might have been stopped by voter ID laws vs. 1,036 out of 347,000 in one state election who were disfranchised by the law.