The remarkable thing about voter fraud — meaning the kind in which voters misrepresent themselves — is there is so little of it.
Equally interesting is that the kind we do actually hear about regularly in Kentucky — in which people are paid or otherwise induced to vote a certain way — doesn't seem to get a lot of traction in the political world.
So, we've had the curious contrast these past few months between the national debate about voter ID laws to solve a problem that doesn't exist while here in Kentucky federal prosecutors are laboring mightily to convict people who engaged in the kind of fraud that really does steal elections.
Just last week, three people pleaded guilty to participating in a vote-buying scheme in Clay County, an enterprise that has also resulted in the guilty pleas or convictions of about a dozen others. This was no small-time deal in which a few people used the names of dead people or otherwise faked their identifications to illegally have their say at the polls.
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No, according to the allegations and testimony in federal court, these were full-blown business operations in which some people used lots of assets — drug money, drugs, county paving budgets, public jobs, kickbacks — to buy votes so they could consolidate and increase their hold over public positions and assets.
In all the railing about voter fraud, you rarely hear a call for increasing the budgets of federal investigators and prosecutors to root out bad officeholders already in the system. Instead, the rhetoric is about preventing people who are outside the system from getting in.
And it's empty rhetoric because there is little evidence that type of voter fraud ever has an impact on an election.
"The Politics of Voter Fraud," a report written by political science professor Lorraine C. Minnite for Project Vote, notes that from 2002 to 2005, an average of eight people a year pleaded guilty or were convicted of voting illegally. Her research on state-level convictions is less definitive but yielded a similar result.
Minnite also examined two years of news accounts of allegations of fraud. Most of these involved local races, she wrote, and involved "unsubstantiated or false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error."
The key word in this discussion is loser. As Minnite points out, throughout U.S. history it has been either the losers or those who fear losing who try to limit voting under the guise of preventing fraud.
Post Civil War and pre-Reconstruction, it was Democrats who saw newly enfranchised blacks as a threat and so "erected new rules said to be necessary to respond to alleged fraud by black voters," according to the study.
A century or more later, that's all changed. Recent voter registration efforts have increased the number of minority and low-income voters, tipping "the balance of power away from the Republicans," the report said. "Consequently, the use of baseless voter-fraud allegations for partisan advantage has become the exclusive domain of Republican Party activists."
It's a lesson to keep in mind. Voter fraud is almost never about the disenfranchised or newly enfranchised cheating their way into the polling place. Instead, when it does happen, it's more likely the work of those in power trying to stay just where they are.