ATLANTA -- Republican leaders have discovered a grave threat to American democracy that most of us apparently had not noticed: Everywhere, in big states and small, red enclaves and blue, bustling metropolises and rural hamlets, impostors are flocking to the polls to vote under false pretenses. Apparently, the nation has been overrun by fake voters.
What else would explain the GOP's insistence on using its power to ram through requirements that voters show government-issued photo IDs at the ballot box? Last week, the GOP-dominated House passed a measure requiring voters to show government-issued photo IDs to vote in federal elections by 2008.
"Americans should have their votes counted, and not negated by an illegal alien," said Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican.
Similarly, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and his state Republican colleagues have backed a stringent state requirement for government-issued photo IDs. (A judge last week struck down Georgia's voter ID law, ruling it violates the state's constitution. The state is expected to appeal.)
Announcing a plan this month to crack down on fraudulent documents, Mr. Perdue said, "It's simply unacceptable for people to sneak into the country illegally on Thursday, obtain a government-issued ID on Friday, head for the welfare office on Friday and go to vote on Tuesday."
Now, you can be forgiven if you've never heard of a single case in which an illegal immigrant successfully used a fake ID to vote. Neither Mr. Burton nor Mr. Perdue presented evidence of any such cases.
"People who look carefully at this thing, there's very little 'there' there - very little fraud," said Thomas Patterson, an expert on elections at Harvard's Shorenstein Center. "If you are an illegal immigrant, the last thing you want to do is show up at a polling place."
Mr. Patterson notes that the voting and registration rules that apply in much of this country are more stringent than those in most Western European democracies.
The 2004 presidential election followed a campaign that centered on the threat of terrorism, following the worst attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor. Even with those high stakes, only 60 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots.
In the presidential election of 2000, 51 percent of eligible citizens voted. In 1996, about 49 percent cast ballots; in 1992, about 55 percent.
Yet the lack of a problem has made Republicans no less insistent on a solution. It makes you wonder whether they are up to something other than ferreting out voter fraud. Even if there is a legitimate need for a single, government-sponsored identification card in an age of terrorism, it would take years - and a well-organized, government-funded effort - to place those IDs in the hands of every elderly and rural American in out-of-the-way hamlets and every American of color in down-at-the-heels urban neighborhoods.
Of course, Republicans know that. They also know that most minority voters tend to cast their ballots for Democrats; so do many low-income elderly voters. Because those voters are less likely to have driver's licenses, it's a safe bet that requiring a photo ID at the polls would shave off a few Democratic voters - enough to make a difference in close races.
The GOP has given up making its policies broadly appealing. Instead, it works hard at keeping a certain slice of voters from the polls. Its focus on blocking the ballot box seems especially harsh - and hypocritical - at the very time President Bush has claimed that spreading democratic ideals is the centerpiece of American foreign policy. How can we export democracy to Iraq if we are so uncomfortable with it here at home?
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.