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The phantom menace of voter fraud

Last year, Maryland's Democratic-controlled General Assembly made short work of a Republican-sponsored bill that would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID before being allowed to vote. The legislation, which closely tracked similar GOP-backed ballot security laws around the country, died in committee without ever coming up for a vote.

But Del. Kathryn L. Afzali, the Frederick Republican who is the bill's chief sponsor, is back with a substantially revised version of her original proposal that she hopes will pass muster with her colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee. While her latest idea represents an improvement over last year's bill, it would still create a massive injustice in an effort to solve a problem that is all but non-existent.

The new bill doesn't require showing an ID or even bringing one to the polling place. Ms. Afzali says she made that change in response to concerns that the ID requirement might intimidate some voters and depress turnout. Instead, the new bill would allow citizens arriving at the polls to simply give their name and address, which elections officials could then verify through computer records at the Motor Vehicle Administration or other state agency. Voters who didn't have a driver's license or state identification on file could vote by substituting a utility bill or other official correspondence to prove they are who they say they are.

But that still has the potential to leave out thousands of perfectly eligible voters, most of them young people, minorities or senior citizens. As much as 11 percent of the population lacks a government ID, and the figure is much higher for seniors, minorities, the poor and students, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. There is no reason to assume that someone who doesn't have an ID would have his or her name on something like a utility bill.

It is also impossible to ignore the partisan nature of this issue. The kinds of voters who are most likely to be disenfranchised by voter ID laws are much more likely to vote Democratic, and these measures have almost exclusively been pushed by Republicans.

Those who support voter ID laws, which have been adopted by more than two dozen states in recent years, say they are essential to preventing what they allege is widespread electoral fraud by people impersonating citizens who are legitimately registered to vote but fail to show up — often because of age, infirmity, illness or death. The Republican-leaning watchdog group True the Vote claims to have documented thousands of cases of suspected fraud in vote tallies from recent elections that were large enough to have affected the outcome of those races. It has promised to release this evidence but has not done so.

But a more credible source on the matter, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, conducted a massive investigation between 2002 and 2006. Only 120 people were charged and 86 convicted during a period when nearly 200 million votes were cast in federal elections. According to a New York Times review of the Justice Department's efforts, just 26 of those cases involved voting by people who were ineligible, multiple voting or registration fraud — the kinds of offenses that an ID law might catch.

A 2005 report by the Brennan Center found the most common causes of voting irregularities were not people impersonating others at the polls but clerical mistakes, computer errors and instances where two people with the same or similar names were flagged as the same person voting twice. The Brennan study warned that voter ID laws are far more likely to prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots than to prevent fraud.

No one would argue that preventing voter fraud isn't an important task for state government and that laws against it that are already on the books shouldn't be vigorously enforced. But given the risk of disenfranchising tens of thousands of legitimate Maryland voters as the cost for uncovering a minuscule number of fraudulent ballots, lawmakers of both parties ought to be wary of measures purporting to address a problem in the body politic for which the cure is certain to be worse than the disease.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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