Two days before New Jersey's gubernatorial election, Wall Street Journal columnist and voter-fraud hype-man John Fund warned the election might be stolen away from Republican Chris Christie through voter fraud. "Local politicos," he wrote, "tell me Philly operatives associated in the past with Acorn may now be advising their Jersey cousins on how to perform such vote harvesting."
That's quite a hedge -- and understandably so, given that ACORN had "conducted absolutely no political or voter registration activity" in New Jersey during the 2009 cycle. A few hours later Fund went on The Glenn Beck Show to strike fear into the hearts of Beck's viewers: "People are going door to door in parts of Camden with Hispanics that don't have very much knowledge of English, and they're saying, 'We have a new way for you to vote, la nueva forma de votar; just fill out these papers.'"
Media Matters noticed that this harrowing account of voter fraud had been told before, by Fund himself, in the column he had written just hours earlier, only the city was Philadelphia in 1993, not Camden in 2009. In order to give the perception that shadowy ACORN operators had decamped in New Jersey, Fund transparently recycled an anecdote that wasn't all that convincing in the first place.
Like Fund, National Review's Jim Geraghty warned of a potential Democratic scheme in New Jersey to steal the election through provisional ballots. The Democratic Party asked the state to provide provisional ballots in response to several thousand absentee-ballot requests in which the signature of the person making the request did not match the one on file. Both Geraghty and Fund fretted that Democrats would try to steal the election through fraudulent provisional ballots. Neither told their readers that in New Jersey, provisional ballots are reviewed by bipartisan four-person panels in each county. In other words, they're subject to more, not less, scrutiny than regular ballots and are therefore less vulnerable to fraud. In fact, it's fair to say that provisional ballots are more likely than regular ones to be disqualified, in part because of the partisan interest in one side finding reasons to disqualify the other side's votes.
Voter fraud is in fact, quite rare. Conservatives generally confuse the issue by conflating registration fraud -- as easy as filling out an erroneous voter registration form -- and voter fraud, which is actually casting a fraudulent ballot. The Bush Justice Department spent years chasing voter fraud cases and found few cases. It went as far as firing its own attorneys after they refused to pursue trumped up charges against political targets. But hyping the threat of voter fraud has worked politically as a pretext for practices -- like voter purges and restrictive ID laws -- that prevent eligible voters from casting ballots.
Conservatives like Fund are committed to trotting out the canard of voter fraud because it works the conservative base into a lather -- and it delegitimizes potential Democratic victories. There's a reason why conservatives were focused on voter fraud in New Jersey (in Fund's case, even to the point of fabricating stories), where pundits had the Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine neck and neck with the Republican challenger Christie, instead of Virginia, where Republican Bob McDonnell was expected to pull out an easy win. Republicans were laying down the political foundations for a legal challenge to a Corzine victory.
There should also be no mistaking the ugly racial subtext to anecdotes like Fund's --conservatives should be suspicious of minorities casting the ballot. To the extent that a small portion of the conservative base feels disenfranchised by the presence of a black man in the White House, it's equally alarmed by the browning of the electorate that sent him there -- which is why ACORN, which focuses on organizing in minority communities, didn't become an issue until 2008.
Despite Republican concern over voter fraud, the GOP has been reluctant to support efforts to expand the franchise to anyone who is eligible, a practice that would put groups like ACORN out of the voter-registration business. The GOP hype of voter fraud will be repeated again and again until the United States permits universal voter registration -- ensuring that all eligible American citizens are able to vote and can't be arbitrarily purged from the rolls. This shouldn't be a controversial proposition. According to the Brennan Center, the U.S. is one of few modern industrialized nations that still puts the burden of registration on the voter. In fact, voter-initiated registration wasn't instituted in the United States until the late 19th-Century -- and then, in part to suppress the votes of former slaves and recent European immigrants.
The flip side to conservative whining over voter fraud is that Democrats, despite expressing rhetorical concern over voter access, nevertheless avoid acting decisively to pass a universal voter registration law when they are in power. When Democrats lose, they lack the power to expand the franchise to all American citizens. When they win, the concern over ensuring that all eligible American citizens are able to vote just seems to fade away. Until universal voter registration is a reality, eligible voters will continue to be disqualified from casting ballots, and that most sacred of rights in a democracy, the right to cast a vote, will remain vulnerably to petty partisan manipulation.