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Looking in the shadows for voter fraud

With the presidential election already dominating the news, it is worth considering how the Bush administration has tried to put its thumb on the scale of the nation's elections. Figuring out inventive ways to reduce the number of minority and low-income voters who tend to lean Democratic has been great sport for the loyal Bushies in the Justice Department and they've done a yeoman's job.

You probably know that some of the U.S. attorneys who lost their jobs in the purge did so in part because they failed to bring weak voter fraud cases. What you might not know are some of the details of the cases brought by those offices that went along.

Republican officials like to claim that legions of people are trying to game the system by voting illegally. This allows them to justify tough voting identification measures that tend to throw up barriers for low-income and minority voters.

The problem is, the Republicans are making it up. Just ask Lorraine Minnite, assistant professor in the political science department of Barnard College, who did a six-year comprehensive study on voter fraud. Her findings are that it "is rare, and the cure is worse than the disease."

According to Minnite's recent testimony before Congress, the Justice Department found only a handful of individual offenders; and those who got snagged were people like Derek Little of Wisconsin, who didn't know that as an ex-felon on probation he couldn't legally vote.

Little registered to vote using his prison ID card with the word "OFFENDER" stamped on it, but no one told him that eligibility would be a problem, Minnite says. Because of that lapse, he faced five years in federal prison for the crime of voter fraud — charges that were later dropped. According to Minnite, Little says he will never try to vote again.

Stories like this must tickle John Tanner, the former voting rights chief who resigned in December after a spotlight was shone on the politicization he brought to his post along with a pattern of efforts to tamp down minority votes.

Tanner had been a very good soldier, doing things like endorsing a Georgia law requiring voters to produce photo identification cards, even after career staff found that minorities would be disenfranchised by it. (The issue of voter ID requirements is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Tanner was also at the forefront of a push to get states to scour and cleanse their voter lists, suing six states and localities to get them to tighten enforcement. But the pressure prompted mistakes, and eligible voters were thrown off the rolls. An effort like this is also particularly likely to hurt the voting prospects of people who move frequently.

Then there is the other side of the ledger — refusing to enforce those laws that encourage minority voting.

Award another gold star here.

Since 1993, federal law under the National Voter Registration Act has required states to provide easy voter registration anywhere federal public assistance such as food stamps is offered. The point was to reduce disparities in voting between low- and higher-income Americans.

The new law worked well in the beginning when there was widespread compliance, but since the 1990s states have significantly slacked off. Voter registrations from public assistance agencies plummeted 79 percent from 1995 to 2006.

To counter this abysmal showing, public interest groups have been urging the Justice Department to take action. Scott Novakowski of the non-profit group Demos, says his group met with department officials in 2004 and laid out the evidence that a great many states were not following the law. The response was indifference. "They just didn't do anything," Novakowski said.

Since then the department has sent letters to some states about the problem, but Novakowski says there hasn't been any real follow-up. The department claims it's monitoring things but refuses to give specifics.

So, while the department chases shadows of voter fraud, convicting only 26 people in three years, according to Minnite's study, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of low-income people are not registering to vote because registration is not being made available the way the law requires.

The insider confirmation of such machinations comes from Joseph Rich, the former chief of the department's Voting Section, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times that he left the agency in 2005 because political appointees "skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections."

Of hiring, Rich said, "an applicant's fidelity to GOP interests replaced civil rights experience as the most important factor."

There is something immoral about the Bush Justice Department helping Republicans win elections by approving tactics known to suppress votes of disadvantaged Americans. But as this administration has demonstrated repeatedly, winning takes precedence over good government every time.

Looking in the shadows for voter fraud 03/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 1:34pm]

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