10/29/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Voter Fraud: The GOP Boogyman

Over the course of the last decade, states have begun implementing strict voter identification requirements, starting with Arkansas"s strict non-photo ID requirement in 2004.

In 2005, Indiana became the first state to require voters provide a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. The law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, despite there being "no evidence" of a voter fraud problem.

The issue has been intensely partisan, with Republicans supporting increased identification requirements for voters and Democrats opposing them...
In a dissenting opinion, Justice David H. Souter said that for those on whom the law had an impact, the burden was "serious" and the state had failed to justify it. Like the Virginia poll tax the court struck down 42 years ago, he said, "the onus of the Indiana law is illegitimate just because it correlates with no state interest so well as it does with the object of deterring poorer residents from exercising the franchise."

Today, seven states have "strict" photo ID laws for voters: Georgia (2008), Indiana (2008), Kansas (2011), Mississippi (2012), Tennessee (2013), Texas (2013) and Virginia (2013). All are considered red states, although Indiana (2008) and Virginia (2012) have each voted Democratic in a recent presidential election.

These laws do nothing to prevent someone from registering to vote who is not eligible to do so, what we might call voter registration fraud. Although federal law does require first-time voters who register by mail to present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement as proof of identity, this ID confirmation does not prove citizenship. Nevertheless, fraudulent voter registration is a modern chicken little tale.

Voter ID laws are intended to prevent an impersonator from casting a ballot in someone else's name.

That's all that they do.

But this is a problem that does not exist.

Monday The Guardian reported on the Texas photo ID requirement, a law that "has been deemed by the courts to be the strictest of its kind in the US."

[I]n the past 10 years some 20m votes have been cast [in Texas], yet only two cases of voter impersonation have been prosecuted to conviction.

Yet Texas has systematically and routinely disenfranchised minorities, as federal district judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos details in a scathing opinion that temporarily struck down the law (pdf).

For example, minorities were prevented from voting in primaries until 1944. A poll tax was in place for state issues and campaigns until 1966. The poll tax was immediately supplanted with a requirement that voters re-register annually; that law was struck down by the courts in 1971. Literacy requirements were in place until struck down by the courts in 1970.

Until 1979, students at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU is a historically black university) in Waller County were prohibited by the tax assessor and voter registrar from voting unless they or their families owned property in the county. In 1992, a Waller County prosecutor indicted PVAMU students for illegally voting; charges were dropped because of intervention from the DOJ. In 2003, a PVAMU student ran for county commissioner and the district attorney "threatened to prosecute students for voter fraud--for not meeting the old domicile test." The NAACP intervened; the student won the election. And in 2007-08, Waller County impeded voter registration drives and ceased only after signing a consent decree.

Finally, she writes: "In every redistricting cycle since 1970, Texas has been found to have violated the [Voting Rights Act] with racially gerrymandered districts."

In each instance, the Texas Legislature relied on the justification that its discriminatory measures were necessary to combat voter fraud. In some instances, there were admissions that the legislature did not want minorities voting... There has been a clear and disturbing pattern of discrimination in the name of combatting voter fraud in Texas... The only voter fraud addressed by SB 14 is voter impersonation fraud, which the evidence demonstrates is very rare. (emphasis added)

In August, the Washington Post published research from Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt: A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast.

Read that again.

Only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation -- the kind of "voter fraud" that state laws address -- in more than 1 billion ballots cast.

The problem that voter ID laws are intended to address is a myth.

Of course, there are other possible types of fraud, such as vote buying, coercion, false voter registration. "Or ballot box stuffing by officials in on the scam." But voter ID laws do not address these issues.

There is a much larger error rate in counting ballots, which can be as much as 2 percent for hand-counts.

These laws are explicitly designed to disenfranchise, to limit access to the ballot box.

In 2006, the Brennan Center reported that 9-in-10 Americans of voting age did not own a valid government-issued photo ID:

"Do you have a current, unexpired government-issued ID with your picture on it, like a driver's license or a military ID?" Eleven percent of all survey respondents said that they did not, and even higher percentages of African-American, low-income, and older citizens said that they did not.

In addition to documented disenfranchisement caused by these partisan laws, we have other types of voter disenfranchisement. Due to poorly designed ballots (pdf). Due to gerrymandering. Due to faulty voting equipment. Due to impossible lines.

Yet the voter ID requirement is akin to being guilty until proven innocent. EPIC expresses concern about privacy:

[V]oters are required to present the cards not to police but to poll workers, most of whom are neither professionally licensed in law enforcement nor permanent government employees. Voting ID requirements mandate self-identification not in the context of criminal apprehension but as a condition to an innocent person's exercise of the constitutional right to vote.

Writing in the September 2004 Florida Law Review (pdf), Professor Daniel J. Steinbock, University of Toledo College of Law, argued that there is "psychic harm" when "free people" have to "show your papers."

Knowing that [identification checkpoints have] become a permanent part of the social fabric would diminish their sense of liberty.

The cost-benefit analysis is clear: we've put far too much energy into combatting a non-existent problem and too little in resolving real issues of enfranchisement.

Remember this when you vote in this general election.