Do New Voting Laws Suppress Fraud? Or Democrats?

Originally published on September 17, 2011 6:03 pm

While campaigning to become Kansas' secretary of state, Kris Kobach held a press conference to make the case for a photo ID requirement at the polls. In his argument, he noted that a man named Alfred K. Brewer, who died in 1996, had voted in the 2010 primary.

There was just one problem with that: Brewer wasn't dead.

Shortly after the press conference, Brewer's wife received a call regarding her husband's "passing."

"And she says, 'Well, why do you want to talk to me? He's out raking leaves,'" Brewer says.

New Crackdowns

It turned out the voter rolls Kobach referenced had the birth date for Brewer's father, who had the same name.

Despite the mistake, Kobach was trying to make a serious point. He's part of a growing number of Republican lawmakers trying to crack down on voter fraud.

Kansas, Alabama and Tennessee mandated that voters show proof of citizenship before registering to vote. Six states now require voters to show a government-issued ID at the polls. Other states, like Florida and Ohio, have cut short their early voting programs.

Ari Berman, who's reported on these laws for Rolling Stone magazine, says that requirements in the name of protecting against voter fraud actually suppress certain voter demographics.

"I believe what Republicans are trying to do is make it harder for Democratic candidates to turn out an electorate [like] they turned out in 2008, which is young voters, African-Americans, Hispanics," Berman tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

He says those are the people who are disproportionately affected by the new laws.

"This legislation is written in such a way that it actual prohibits people in certain states from voting who would have the right IDs," he says.

Barriers Before The Polls

Most people do have a photo ID of some kind, but there are still some who might not be able to vote because of the new laws. The elderly and disabled might have trouble getting to a DMV to renew their licenses. Others might not be able to afford a passport or lack the proper documentation for an ID, like a birth certificate. In some states, like Texas, student IDs are not acceptable.

Berman says there are already fines in place to deter voter fraud. He says he thinks the restrictions won't prevent any wrongdoing and that the crime isn't widespread at all.

"A voter is more likely to be struck by lightening than they are to impersonate another voter at the polls," Berman says, citing a report from the Brennan Center for Justice.

Berman says the Department of Justice looked into 300 million votes cast between 2002 and 2007 and failed to prosecute a single person for impersonating an eligible voter at the polls.

In Pursuit Of Protecting Elections

Kobach says there's no Republican conspiracy. In Kansas, two-thirds of Democrats supported his voter ID bill.

Kobach says there have been 221 incidents of voter fraud since 1997 in Kansas, evidence that he calls "the tip of the iceberg." About 30 of those cases were investigated and seven people were convicted.

Seven convictions over 13 years doesn't seem like an indicator of a widespread abuse, but Kobach says those cases can sway elections, especially on the local level.

"When you have multiple cases of election fraud in an election and the election is a close one, it can ultimately end up throwing the election to the candidate who profits from the voter fraud," he says.

Kobach says there's no evidence to suggest voter turnout is suppressed by laws like the one in Kansas and that a photo ID is a perfectly acceptable requirement.

"It does not burden the right to vote" in any way that might be seen as a violation of the Constitution, he says.

Kansas offers free photo IDs and allows senior citizens to use expired IDs.

"These are reasonable protections we can put into place," he says, "and in doing so, we really protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that in those rare cases, elections are not stolen."

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GUY RAZ, Host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Late last year, Kris Kobach, who was running for secretary of state in Kansas, stood in front of a bank of microphones. Kobach is a rising star in the Republican Party. He's a constitutional scholar and an intellectual who exudes charisma. Anyway, at that press conference, Kobach was pushing for tough new laws that would crack down on voter fraud. He said it's widespread in Kansas.

KRIS KOBACH: Let me just give you one example: Alfred K. Brewer. Well, it turns out Alfred K. Brewer, according to the Social Security Administration, was born on July 25, 1904. Turned out he died May 6, 1996. And Alfred K. Brewer voted in the 2010 primary election.


RAZ: Just one problem with that. Hi, is that Al Brewer?

ALFRED BREWER: Yes, Alfred Keith Brewer. Right.

RAZ: Hi, Al. This is Guy Raz from NPR.

BREWER: Yes, sir.

RAZ: Al Brewer, are you dead?

BREWER: No, I'm not really dead. I do all sorts of things.


RAZ: Al Brewer is 79. He exercises at the Y. He goes to museums in Wichita. And since 1964, he's voted in every election. Now, the day he was accidentally declared dead in an example of voter fraud, a local reporter called him up.

BREWER: Called my wife. Actually, she was in the house, took the call, and they said something about me being dead and they were sorry to have to talk to her about it. And she says, well, why do you want to talk to me? He's out raking leaves.

RAZ: Turns out it was a mix up. They confused Al Brewer with his later father, also Al Brewer. Anyway, Kansas did eventually pass the strictest requirements for voting in the country. You need a photo ID to vote. You have to prove you're a citizen. And if you vote by mail, you have to have your signature verified.

KOBACH: Are the likes of Alfred K. Brewer stealing elections? Or is there another reason behind these tough new laws. We'll find out from Kris Kobach, who is now the secretary of state in Kansas, in a few moments.

The same thing, by the way, is happening in at least a dozen other states, mostly Republicans passing strict new voting laws. And critics like Deborah Vagins of the ACLU says these laws are designed to suppress voter turnout, especially among minorities and the poor.

DEBORAH VAGINS: I think we're seeing a really dramatic uptick in these laws right now. I think that they're terrible, and I think they're going to disfranchise millions of people.

RAZ: In a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Ari Berman wrote about all the states that have either passed new voting restrictions or are considering them.

ARI BERMAN: Kansas, Alabama and Tennessee now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering to vote. We've had five states, including crucial swing states like Florida and Ohio, cut short their early voting periods. We've had six states mandate that voters produce government issued IDs before casting ballots. That's something that a lot of people don't realize 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack. And then in two states, Florida and Iowa, ex-felons who have served their time, are prevented from voting altogether.

RAZ: OK. Based on your reporting, Ari, how widespread is voter fraud in the United States today?

BERMAN: Not widespread at all. Between 2002 and 2007, the Justice Department did a major probe into voter fraud. And out of 300 million votes cast during that period, they failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter. And in a state like Wisconsin, which held another probe both in 2004 and in 2008, they only prosecuted .0007 percent of the local electorate.

And there was a very telling statistic from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, which found that a voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than they are to impersonate another voter at the polls. And that's why I believe what Republicans are trying to do is make it harder for Democratic candidates to turn out an electorate that they turned out in 2008, which is young voters, African-Americans, Hispanics. Those are the people that will be disproportionately affected by these new laws that have passed in a dozen states.

RAZ: But what explains the fact that two-thirds of Democrats in the Kansas legislature backed this, supported this?

BERMAN: Well, they've been bullied by Republicans into believing this voter fraud rhetoric. But you've seen - all across the country, you've seen Democratic governors veto this type of legislation when it's come from Republican legislators. You saw vetoes in Missouri. You saw vetoes in Montana. You saw vetoes in North Carolina. And so this is something that overwhelmingly is being pushed and voted on by Republicans.

RAZ: OK. You need an ID to do everything from cash a check to get into a bar to get some Sudafed at the drug store. What's the big deal? I mean, you know, show an ID when you vote. Why is that such a big deal?

BERMAN: Sure. Well, Guy, last time I checked buying a beer or buying Sudafed is not a constitutional right, number one. This legislation is written is such a way that it actually prohibits people in certain states from voting who would have the right ID. So, for example, students are one group of people. They can't vote with their IDs in Texas.

In Texas, you can vote with a handgun permit but not with a student ID. And you have a number of states where simply getting that free ID is very difficult. Take South Carolina, for example. To get a free ID now required to vote, 178,000 South Carolinians who currently lack that ID must pay for a passport or a birth certificate.

And elderly black residents of the state who were born at home in the segregated South never had a birth certificate, never had proof of ID. They must now go to family court to prove their identity.


RAZ: And Ari Berman points to another example, Ohio, a key swing state and a 2012 battleground. Every Sunday before Election Day, Lane Dunbar of the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland helps to arrange buses to bring folks, mostly elderly African-Americans, to the polls.

LANE DUNBAR: This was wonderful because for about three or four Sundays in a row, we had buses and a couple of vans going down to the board of elections to vote.

RAZ: During election season, he says, many elderly African-Americans vote on Sunday after church. But under a new law passed in Ohio, no voting will be allowed on Saturday afternoons or Sundays before Election Day.

DUNBAR: Times that are the most convenient for thousands throughout the state of Ohio.

RAZ: And in Florida, the state House passed a law, making it more difficult for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Now, Democrats across the country say all of these laws are designed to keep Democrats from winning, except proponents of these new restrictions argue that they're designed to protect both Democrats and Republicans.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach says over the past 13 years in his state alone, there have been 200 cases of suspected voter fraud.

KOBACH: And given the difficulty of detecting voter fraud, my belief is these 221 cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

RAZ: So in the past 13 years in Kansas, there have been, you say, 221 incidents of voter fraud in all elections held in that state. How many of those cases have actually been convicted?

KOBACH: Voter fraud, in most county attorneys' minds, is an interesting crime, but it's probably not the most pressing thing on their agenda. Oftentimes, these cases just get pushed to the side and they don't even get investigated. So of the 221 cases, only about 30 or so were actually investigated further. And then of those 30, seven were brought to prosecution and all seven yielded convictions.

RAZ: But let's talk about that. I mean, seven convictions of voter fraud over the past 13 years doesn't sound like it's such a widespread problem that would inspire such strict legislation. Do you really think it's warranted based simply on seven convictions of voter fraud?

KOBACH: The way to look at it is not to say, well, what's the total number of elections, the total number of votes cast and then the total number of convictions? The question I think is, is it enough of an issue that in specific elections, the number of cases of voter fraud exceeds the margin of victory in a particularly close race? And that happens all the time.

In Kansas, we have many state legislative races that are decided by, you know, 50 votes or less, 30 votes or less. And when you have multiple cases of election fraud in an election and the election is a close one, it can ultimately end up throwing the election to the candidate that profits from the voter fraud.

RAZ: As you know, many critics of voter ID laws say that they are essentially modern versions of property requirements or literacy laws that were largely designed to keep African-Americans and poor voters away from the polls, voters obviously who tend to trend to vote Democratic. How do you respond to that?

KOBACH: Well, a number of ways. First, I'd respond the way the U.S. Supreme Court responded to it in 2008, that it does not burden the right to vote. Having a photo ID has become a normal part of American life, and it is very difficult to find people who don't have a photo ID.

But just in case, in Kansas, we provide for a free photo ID as do the other states that have adopted these requirements. You know, the argument that photo ID laws might depress minority turnout, that hasn't happened in the two states where we actually have examples of elections being conducted under these systems, those being Indiana and Georgia.

In neither case was minority turnout depressed by the laws and looking at comparisons from election to election, it appears that minority turnout actually was unusually high in both the 2008 and 2010 elections.

RAZ: In Kansas, you have to show proof of citizenship if you want to vote. But here's a question: If you are a non-citizen or let's say an illegal immigrant, why would you want to put yourself in danger of being deported by going to the polls and breaking the law?

KOBACH: Well, I think most illegal aliens probably would not do this, you know, on their own volition, just as on a whim. It might be an instance where they're brought into this country and then the smuggler says, hey, fill out this application and get this card. It'll help prove that you're legally here. So does this happen often? Of course not. But does it happen? Yes.

And I think that's what we have to recognize, that these are reasonable protections we can put into place. And in so doing, we really protect the integrity of our elections and ensure that in those rare cases, elections are not stolen.

RAZ: Kris Kobach is the secretary of state in Kansas. Secretary Kobach, thanks.

KOBACH: Yeah. My pleasure.

RAZ: The real question over how these rules will ultimately affect elections may be answered in 2012. Reporter Ari Berman says a total of 38 states have introduced similar laws this year.

BERMAN: We already know from 2008 based on the study from MIT that nine million people were unable to vote based on problems with their voter registration, long lines at the polls, problems with their photo ID. That's nine million people. My guess is that number will be greatly exacerbated by the new laws that have passed this year.

RAZ: Reporter Ari Berman. You can find a link to his article at our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.