The "Real Issue" Behind Voter Fraud

This, from the New York Times public editor, is an amazing example of what happens when journalists attempt to balance two unequal sides:

In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.

“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.

The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.

“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”

Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”

Of course, that’s the only issue here. Conservative activists are clamoring for laws that would reduce the incidence of in-person voter fraud. If in-person fraud is a serious problem in American elections, then these laws are necessary, even if they erect a barrier to voting for low-income, elderly and other marginalized Americans. But if in-person fraud isn’t a problem—if it’s rare—then we have to question the motives and intent of people pushing voter fraud laws.

As it stands, in-person voter fraud is extremely hard to find. According to one of the few comprehensive studies on the subject, of the 600 million votes cast since 2000, 633 involved voter fraud, and of that number, only 10 involved in-person voter fraud. The overall rate for voter fraud—1 vote in 60 million—is so low as to be nonexistent. And this weekend, the New York Times profiled True the Vote, an anti-voter fraud group whose founder is devoted to defeating President Obama.

Thanks to effective messaging and false tales of rampant fraud, Republicans have convinced large majorities of the public to support voter ID laws that erect large barriers to voting for millions of Americans. And if there’s anyone who ought to challenge public opinion on this, it’s the media.