One week before the close of voter registration in Kentucky last fall, in an election that culminated with the victory of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Beshear, Johanna Sharrard, a fresh-faced 26-year-old national organizer for the low-income advocacy group ACORN, gathered her canvassers in a run-down Louisville office and told them some good news: "We got 396 people yesterday--that's really great!" Then she added what could have seemed a jarringly discordant note: "We know it's getting harder to reach people with the cards in this area. It's really important that you guys are not slipping up and turning to filling out your own applications or other fraudulent activity. Just yesterday we had to let another person go because she did not follow protocols." Sharrard continued sternly, "What's important is that we get 15,000 new voters. We're not out there to get 10,000 new voters and 5,000 false applications."
Indeed, the voter registration waged by ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) in Kentucky was also an effort to test the group's new system for rooting out any fraud. The organization is readying itself for the challenges to voter participation that the poor and minorities--and Democrats--are sure to face in 2008.
Sharrard's cautionary tone was a response to the Republican Party's ongoing nationwide campaign to suppress the low-income minority vote by propagating the myth of voter fraud. Using various tactics--including media smears, bogus lawsuits, restrictive new voting laws and policies, and flimsy prosecutions--Republican operatives, election officials, and the GOP-controlled Justice Department have limited voting access and gone after voter-registration groups such as ACORN. Which should come as no surprise: In building support for initiatives raising the minimum wage and kindred ballot measures, ACORN has registered, in partnership with Project Vote, 1.6 million largely Democratic-leaning voters since 2004. Attacking ACORN has been a central element of a systematic GOP disenfranchisement agenda to undermine Democratic prospects before each Election Day.
Revelations that U.S. attorneys were fired for their failure to successfully prosecute voter fraud have revealed how fictitious the allegations of widespread fraud actually were--but the allegations haven't gone away. They live on in all the vote-suppressing laws and regulations that will likely affect this year's election, in GOP rhetoric and, most recently, in the arguments presented by champions of Indiana's restrictive voter-identification law in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, progressives have tended to pay more attention to Election Day dirty tricks and to electronic voting machines than to a more systemic threat: the Republican campaign to suppress the votes of low-income, young, and minority voters through restrictive legislation and rulings, all based on the mythic specter of voter fraud. Those relatively transient voters, drawn to the polls this year by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, could find themselves thwarted in November and thereafter by the GOP-driven regime of voting restrictions--particularly if, as many observers believe, the Court upholds Indiana's restrictive law before it adjourns this June.
Voter fraud is actually less likely to occur than lightning striking a person, according to data compiled by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. As Lorraine Minnite, a Columbia University professor, observed in the Project Vote report, The Politics of Voter Fraud, "The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud." In October 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft launched an intensive "Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative" that required all U.S. attorney offices to coordinate with local officials in combating voter fraud. Yet even after the Justice Department declared the war against voter fraud a "high priority," only 24 people were convicted of illegal voting in federal elections between 2002 and 2005--and nobody was even charged by Justice with impersonating another voter. …