Democracy Defrauded

The Impact Of Voter Fraud Prevention Laws On Minority Communities

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

By Alexandra Bixler

The November 2016 election led to some troubling consequences for Crystal Mason, a mother of three from Fort Worth, Texas. After being released from prison for tax evasion, Mason went to her local polling place to cast her vote only to be told that her name was not on the list of known voters. Mason followed widely distributed advice and casted a provisional ballot, used to preliminarily record a vote when there are questions regarding the voter’s eligibility that must first be resolved. Within the fine print of the ballot were the words: “I understand that it is a felony of the 2nd degree to vote in an election for which I know I am not eligible.” Skimming over the warning, Mason had no knowledge that she was unable to vote due to her prior conviction. Now, she is facing 5 years in prison for attempting to cast her vote that was pending via provisional ballot.[1]

Voting rights activists have widely referred to these heavy-punishment laws as a fear tactic to prevent people from voting. In fact, Mason’s children were so traumatized by the ordeal that they now claim that they will never vote out of fear of prosecution. Public outcry became further emboldened  as the disproportionate impact of these laws became evident. While Terri Lynn Rote, who is white, committed voter fraud in the 2016 election when she attempted to vote for Trump twice, Crystal Mason, who is African-American, received a much heftier sentence. Rote was given 2 years of probation and a $750 fine, demonstrating one of the many ways voting laws impact racial minorities unfairly.[2]

Despite an array of equally troubling and similar stories, Voter ID laws and voter fraud prevention efforts are widely supported. Former Republican South Carolina governor Nikki Haley once  said:

“Requiring people to show a photo ID before they vote is a reasonable measure. It is not racist. If everyone was willing to stop shouting and stop trying to score race-baiting political points, we could reach common ground. I want everyone who is eligible to vote, to vote.”[3]

 This statement attempts to brand Voter ID laws as “common-sense” measures to prevent fraud. However, the issue is more complex than it appears.

Before further delving into issues faced by the modern voter, it is important to recognize where this country started. In 1776, voting was restricted to white men over the age of 21 that owned land. After the Civil War, the 15th amendment in 1870 gave the illusion that black men could vote, but this was not the reality. Black men, who were still impoverished, had to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test that would often consist of decoding complicated, nearly cryptic messages. White men, if they had to undergo any literacy test at all, would be asked to explain a simple sentence.[4]

 Legal barriers served as a significant barrier for black men, but social barriers were far more dangerous. Attempting to vote subjected black men to violence and lynchings. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress between 1882-1968, but none passed. This demonstrates the strength of the cultural idea that blacks needed to be punished for “misbehaving”.[5]  By 1920, white women would receive the right to vote with the 19th amendment but suffragettes actively excluded minority women from their activism. Four years later, Native Americans received the right to vote. All Americans could not vote until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year the poll tax was banned. Despite these legislative achievements, blatant voter suppression still plagues our nation’s recent history. This emphasizes the importance of determining whether voter fraud prevention measures truly seek to preserve the sanctity of elections or if they are pushing Americans back.[6] 

For many it may seem difficult to believe voting laws as simple as possessing a government-issued photo ID could serve as such a challenge for voters. However, those in deep poverty are less likely to have a passport or a driver’s license, because they can’t afford a trip out of the country or a car. In fact, while 10% of Americans do not have a photo ID, this statistic spikes up to 15% for Americans that make under $35,000 a year. Shockingly, 25% of black Americans do not have a photo ID. Intentionally or unintentionally, voter ID laws hurt a very specific demographic of voters: racial minorities and low income citizens.[7] The Atlantic conducted a survey in July of 2018 asking Americans of all races about their voting experience. The study found that, while voter fraud laws are not explicitly color-focused, the outcome is. Racial minorities express having a much more difficult time voting than their white counterparts. 10-11% of minority voters were told during the 2016 election, incorrectly, that their names were not listed on voter rolls while only 5% of whites were told the same. Additionally, 15% of minority voters reporting having a difficult time finding their polling place on election day while only 5% of whites could say the same. Frighteningly, 1 out of every 10 voting hispanics reported that they were “bothered” at the polls due to anti-immigrant sentiments. This demonstrates that minority voters have to overcome both legal and social obstacles to exercise their basic right to vote, an experience white Americans do not have nearly as often.

While President Donald Trump claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election, the 2016 election has 4 documented cases of voter fraud.[8] The Brennan Center of Justice’s research has also confirmed that voter fraud is not a widespread phenomena through their study, The Truth About Voter Fraud. The study concluded that Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than attempt to impersonate someone else at the polls. If the problem of voter fraud is seemingly so obsolete, it brings the question of what the purpose of strict voting laws truly are.

Democrats can rejoice in the fact that they took back the House in the 2018 midterms, but that is not to say that these restrictive laws did not play a role in hindering their success. In 2018, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp was unseated by Republican Kevin Cramer. She won her 2012 election narrowly, by a margin of 3000 votes. Native Americans were a great help to her in this race. After this victory, the Republican North Dakota state legislature took action. By 2017, House Bill 1369 was passed, which required voters to provide residential addresses on their registration forms. Unfortunately Native Americans in reservations do not have addresses or even street names, often relying on P.O boxes instead.  Republicans have claimed that their intent with HB 1369 was to prevent out-of-state voters from committing fraud rather than intentionally disenfranchise voters. However, according to Federal Judge Daniel Hovland voter fraud in the state is “virtually nonexistent.” While the public officials that pushed this bill along claim to hold  non-discriminatory intentions, they demonstrated a gross lack of knowledge about the living situations of their constituents at best.[9]

While many Native Americans with reservation P.O. boxes were able to overcome obstacles to the polls, many did not. Some complained that county officials in charge of issuing new IDs were “unavailable” or provided faulty addresses. There were also incidents of two voters going to their polling location only to be told that the facility in Cannon Ball, North Dakota “ran out” of ballots and were redirected to a site an hour and a half away. Additional ballots were provided at their polling location, but this certainly demonstrates the hardship Natives went through to cast their vote.

Voter suppression ultimately undermines the sanctity of elections, keeps underrepresented groups underrepresented, and destroys faith in American democracy. In order to create a government where everyone is included, voter suppression must become a thing of the past.

 


[1] Pilkington, Ed. “US Voter Suppression: Why This Texas Woman Is Facing Five Years' Prison.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 Aug. 2018

[2] Oppenheim, Maya.“Woman Who Tried to Vote Twice for Trump Sentenced.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 18 Aug. 2017

[3] Arter, Melanie. “Gov. Nikki Haley: Voter ID Laws 'Not Racist'.” CNS News, 3 Sept. 2015,

[4] Boeckel, R. (1928). Voting and non-voting in elections. Editorial research reports 1928 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press.

[5] Thomas-Lester, Avis. “A Senate Apology for History on Lynching.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 June 2005

[6] Cooper, Mary H. "Voting Rights." CQ Researcher, 29 Oct. 2004, pp. 901-24

[7] “The Facts About Voter Suppression.” American Civil Liberties Union, Aclu

[8] Bump, Philip. “There Have Been Just Four Documented Cases of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Dec. 2016

[9] Astor, Maggie. “A Look at Where North Dakota's Voter ID Controversy Stands.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018