The Uses and Abuses of “Voter Fraud”

Voter fraud. Vote suppression. Purging the rolls. Voter ID bills. Felony disenfranchisement. These are some of the many terms we often hear around election time when millions of Americans head to the polls. But what does this all mean? And how well does the mainstream media report and explain these issues when it really matters?

The short answer is, “not so well.” Members of the mainstream media often give too much credence to empty claims of “voter fraud,” while ignoring the institutionalized disenfranchisement that occurs too often in America. “Voter fraud” is not an infrequent claim, especially before elections. The claim is most often applied to voter registrations submitted for people who are ineligible or don’t exist. During the 2006 elections, Carl Cameron of Fox News reported, “There have been voter complaints in a variety of places, charges from Republicans of voter fraud, which is to say that Democrats perhaps had tampered with registration or getting voters to the polls.”

Fox News now is repeating voter fraud charges out of Ohio, saying, “The … complaint puts new focus on the issue of voter fraud, which took on new meaning following the contested presidential election in 2000.”

Local news outlets regularly repeat charges of fraud as well. CBS2 in Chicago reports “[t]ensions are rising in northwest Indiana as the race for president there tightens. As voter registration came to a close Monday, John McCain supporters alleged fraud.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, too, is running a story that begins, “An official with the Republican National Committee said Thursday that a group involved with voter registration drives in Milwaukee is ‘engaged in systematic fraud and attempts to undermine our electoral system.’”

Yet these accounts lack the crucial context that should be included in every journalistic account of such charges—that voter fraud allegations are frequently based on shaky evidence with partisan goals in mind.

Project Vote recently released a detailed study of how accusations of voter fraud are often efforts to stop minorities and young people from voting. Called “The Politics of Voter Fraud,” the report details “how charges of voter fraud are used to discredit voter participation efforts and prime the pump for voter suppression efforts, such as the passage of voter ID bills, pushing for proof of citizenship, engaging in draconian voter purge efforts, and imposing severe restrictions on voter registration drives.”

Basically, partisan operatives make loud charges of “fraud” to discourage further enrollment of new voters—even though the evidence behind the charges is frequently paper-thin. This, in fact, was official government policy under the Bush administration. In the wake of the U.S. Attorneys scandal, Jeanne Cummings of the Associated Press reported that “operatives tucked thick folders of newspaper clippings and other fraud tips under their arms and pitched to reporters their claims that the Democrats’ registration program would lead to rampant voter fraud. Their passion was clear, but their evidence was slim, consisting mostly of isolated incidents of voter registration irregularities that were handled by local police or election officials.”

These thin charges are easy to disprove should journalists choose to do so. Sadly, Erin Ferns and Nathan Henderson-James of Project Vote write that, “the history of this issue shows that it has been bereft of this kind of basic journalism, even through the 2006 mid-term elections. This is important because haphazard reporting of partisan claims of voter fraud without checking the facts is how the media helps these voter suppression efforts. These stories not only deter potential voters from getting on the rolls, but… inspire bad election reforms aimed at disenfranchising voters, particularly those that are currently underrepresented in the electorate.”

Not all of the reporting in this area is substandard. One impressive example comes from the Washington Post editorial board. A recent editorial titled “Fear Mongers” noted the claims of Jeffrey M. Frederick, who was alleging “coordinated and widespread voter fraud . . . throughout Virginia.” They called up Frederick, and asked him for proof. The answer they got? “I bet it exists somewhere.” The editorial concluded that, “it is groundless accusations and cynical fear-mongering such as Mr. Frederick’s that are injecting the real venom, and the true threat, into the elections.”

If this tone and reporting work was carried out by all journalists when reporting charges of “voter fraud,” our democracy would be better served. But good reporting on the mechanics of voting cannot stop there.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School published a lengthy investigation of a number of questionable, and quite possibly illegal, practices by those wishing to purge voter rolls. “Far too frequently,” its lawyers report, “eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover their names have been removed from the voter lists. States maintain voter rolls in an inconsistent and unaccountable manner. Officials strike voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.”

It’s the “shrouded in secrecy” part where journalists need to step in. Believe it or not, the Brennan Center details at length how election officials are allowed to conduct these purges without having to tell anyone that they’re doing it, why, or how. Remember, this is voting we’re talking about—the very foundation of our democratic system. The report proposes a number of useful legislative fixes to bust down these walls, but until they are enacted, it is incumbent on journalists to ask these questions of local election officials. If they won’t say, then that, in itself, is a story that should be flogged until they do.

One obvious problem is the lack of public knowledge regarding who can and cannot vote. The laws in this regard are often quite complicated, and “[e]lection officials receive little or no training on these laws, and there is little or no coordination or communication between election offices and the criminal justice system. These factors, coupled with complex laws and complicated registration procedures, result in the mass dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information, which in turn leads to the de facto disenfranchisement of untold hundreds of thousands of eligible would-be voters throughout the country.” Mass dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information? That’s a problem journalists are trained to correct.

The mainstream media spends countless hours telling us every conceivable fact about the presidential election, from policies to body language and lipstick on or not on pigs. But if they cannot clearly explain voting issues, nor be watchdogs when abuses occur—well, what, after all, is journalism for?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.