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For Want of Voter Fraud, It Had to Be Invented

• September 09, 2013 • 10:00 AM


Voter fraud has become a major cause for some politicians on the right, but one may have taken it too far.

Over the weekend, an illegal vote was cast in one of the recall elections in Colorado. Specifically, Republican political activist Jon Caldara, a resident of Boulder County, traveled 100 miles south to El Paso County to cast a vote in the recall of State Senate President John Morse. Only voters registered within Morse’s Colorado Springs district may legally participate in this contest. Caldara committed this crime—a felony, technically—to demonstrate how easy it is to vote illegally in the state, hoping to spur anti-fraud reforms.

In one sense, this is an interesting case of civil disobedience: A citizen knowingly and publicly committed a crime to draw attention to a problematic law. In another, this is a pretty astounding case of a crime being manufactured to demonstrate the need to fight crime. While not quite on the level of manufacturing a galactic civil war to justify the creation of a Clone Army, this is still pretty striking, given the history of this particular issue.

Efforts to crack down on voter fraud, of course, have important consequences on subsequent elections, even if they do nothing to prevent actual fraud.

Voter fraud has, of course, become a major cause for some politicians on the right, and has been used to justify increased restrictions on ballot access. And yet there are almost zero cases of documented voter fraud for reformers to point to. As a report by the Brennan Center concluded: “[V]oter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”

In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has led a campaign against voter fraud for several years now, but this has largely come in the form of claims that thousands of people were voting illegally, claims which are invariably debunked several months later. Most recently, he claimed to have identified 17 people who had voted illegally in Boulder County in 2012 and forwarded those names to the county’s district attorney. It turns out they had all voted legally.

Efforts to crack down on voter fraud, of course, have important consequences on subsequent elections, even if they do nothing to prevent actual fraud. Requirements for voters to bring photo identification to the polls, or efforts to limit who receives a mail-in ballot, tend to have a disparate impact on racial minorities and poorer voters. These voters tend to be strongly Democratic when they actually vote, so it’s hardly shocking that the parties have polarized on the issue of voter fraud.

But the specific case of voter fraud committed Saturday in Colorado is a pretty special one. Here’s an activist concerned about a loophole in a law that would allow people to vote outside their districts. Rather than point to the (so far nearly non-existent) illegal voters, he’s just voting illegally himself. If the statistics don’t support your case, be the statistic.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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