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Profile: Brennan Center for Justice
Brennan Center for Justice was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law issues an in-depth report entitled “The Truth about Voter Fraud.” The report is written and overseen by Justin Levitt, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. Levitt’s study analyzes reports over the last 10 years from around the nation, and finds that real instances of voter fraud are a vanishingly small number, usually less than a tenth or even a hundredth of a percent. Voter fraud of the sort that is usually alleged, he writes, is “more rare than death by lightning.… It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
'Voter Fraud' Usually Conflated with Other Kinds of Election Irregularities - Levitt continues: “‘[V]oter fraud’ occurs when individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote, in an attempt to defraud the election system. This sounds straightforward. And yet, voter fraud is often conflated, intentionally or unintentionally, with other forms of election misconduct or irregularities.”
Allegations Almost Always Exaggerated - Levitt writes that the allegations often stem from dramatic and unverified stories from bygone days, and those stories “make… a popular scapegoat” for other, non-criminal issues such as a vote not going the way someone wishes it had gone. “In the aftermath of a close election, losing candidates are often quick to blame voter fraud for the results,” Levitt writes. “Legislators cite voter fraud as justification for various new restrictions on the exercise of the franchise. And pundits trot out the same few anecdotes time and again as proof that a wave of fraud is imminent.” However, he finds: “Allegations of widespread voter fraud, however, often prove greatly exaggerated. It is easy to grab headlines with a lurid claim (‘Tens of thousands may be voting illegally!’); the follow-up—when any exists—is not usually deemed newsworthy. Yet on closer examination, many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire. The allegations simply do not pan out.”
Allegations Used to Justify Restrictive Voter Requirements - The false allegations, he writes, have provided, and will continue to provide, justifications for restrictive policies such as heightened requirements for voter registration, voter identification requirements, enhanced demands for proof of residency, and others that actively restrict the ability of many legal voters to participate in the democratic process. [Levitt, 2007 ; Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 2012]
Brennan Center for Justice logo. [Source: Red Alert Politics (,com)]A coalition of civil rights groups files a lawsuit in federal court alleging that Florida’s new voting registration law blocks tens of thousands of legitimate would-be voters. The Voter Registration Verification Law, passed in 2005, is sometimes called the “No Match, No Vote” law because it forces first-time voters to provide identification numbers—driver’s license, official state ID, or Social Security numbers—to match those on their voter ID cards. If the numbers do not match, the citizens are not allowed to vote. Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center for Justice, one of the groups filing the lawsuit, says of the law, “Any number of things can go wrong in that process, and the fact that they do is why we’re in court.” The Brennan Center for Justice is joined in the lawsuit by the Florida branch of the NAACP and the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. Levitt says Florida’s State Department has provided files showing some 20,000 voter registration cards were rejected in 2006 because of the law. The lawsuit shows evidence that after California passed a similar law, rejection rates reached as high as 44 percent. Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning says in a statement, “While it is not my policy to comment on pending litigation, I will reiterate that it is the intention of the Department of State to make sure that every eligible voter in the state of Florida has the means and the opportunity to register to vote and to cast a ballot.” The law merely works to comply with federal verification requirements, Browning says, and is “supported” by the US Department of Justice, which is reviewing Florida’s amended registration laws. The Brennan Center for Justice is also involved in another lawsuit challenging state rules which make it more difficult for independent organizations such as the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Levitt says the new law will only exacerbate an already-difficult situation for voters in 2008. “Given the way that registration picks up heavily in an election year, we really fear it’s going to pick up in 2008. As forms flood in before the deadline, there will be less time to deal with them,” Levitt says. [WTSP-TV, 9/17/2007; Florida Independent, 10/22/2010] The lawsuit will not succeed. [Tampa Bay Times, 10/28/2008] In 2008, the law will effectively disenfranchise almost 8,000 voters, the majority of whom are African-Americans and Hispanics, and over three-quarters of whom are registered Democrats. [Florida Independent, 10/22/2010]
Rolling Stone reporter Ari Berman writes that Republican lawmakers across the nation have launched “an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.” The initiative is ostensibly to counter the “epidemic” of “voter fraud” that Republicans insist is not only plaguing the nation, but affecting the outcome of elections. (In 2007, the Brennan Center released a report that found the instance of voter fraud vanishingly small, and concluded that more people die by lightning strikes than commit voter fraud—see 2007). Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project tells Berman, “What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century.” As far back as 1980, powerful Republican operative Paul Weyrich told evangelical leaders: “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” In 2010, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group founded by Weyrich and funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, October 4, 2011, and February 14, 2011), began working to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of legitimate voters, almost of all identified as being part of ethnic or gender groups that are more likely to vote Democratic. Thirty-eight states have submitted legislation designed to impede voting “at almost every step of the electoral process.”
Requiring Proof of Citizenship - Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to show proof of US citizenship before being allowed to vote.
Impeding Voter Registration - Florida and Texas have passed legislation making it more difficult for groups like the League of Women Voters, an organization widely considered to lean Democratic, to register new voters. Maine repealed same-day registration, which had been in effect since 1973 and had worked to significantly increase voter participation. The Florida legislature passed a law requiring groups to hand in voter registration forms within 48 hours of collection, and imposed what Berman calls “a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements” and serious criminal penalties for those who fail to comply. As a result, many people who once volunteered to help register voters are afraid to do so again. The League of Women Voters says it will no longer operate in Florida, and called Florida’s efforts “good old-fashioned voter suppression.” The Florida statute took effect one day after its passage, under an emergency statute designed for “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare.” Since 2009, Florida has arrested a total of three people for suspected voter fraud. Republican state senator Mike Fasano, one of the few in his party to oppose the restrictions on registrations, says, “No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about.”
Curbing Early Voting - Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have cut short early-voting periods. Six states have moved to impose new restrictions on voter registration drives. In 2004, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) said he thought early voting was “great.… It’s another reform we added that has helped provide access to the polls and provide a convenience. And we’re going to have a high voter turnout here, and I think that’s wonderful.” However, his successor Rick Scott (R-FL) does not agree, and neither do most Republicans. After analysis showed what a benefit early voting was for Obama’s numbers, early voting became a key target. Florida has cut early voting days from 14 to 8 days. Ohio, where early voting numbers gave Obama a narrow victory in 2008, has cut its early voting days from 35 to 11, with only limited hours on weekends. Both states have banned voting on the Sunday before elections, when many black churches historically mobilize their constituents. The Early Voting Information Center at Reed College states, “There is no evidence that any form of convenience voting has led to higher levels of fraud.”
Denying Convicted Felons the Right to Vote - Florida and Iowa have passed laws denying convicted felons the right to vote, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters even if they have already served their sentences and have returned to society. Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R-FL) restored the voting rights of 154,000 felons convicted of non-violent crimes. In March 2011, after 30 minutes of public debate, Governor Scott overturned that decision, instantly disenfranchising almost 98,000 citizens and prohibiting another 1.1 million convicts from being allowed to vote after they are released from prison. Former President Bill Clinton asked in July: “Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price? Because most of them in Florida were African-Americans and Hispanics and would tend to vote for Democrats—that’s why.” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) recently took a similar action, overturning his predecessor’s decision to restore voting rights to some 100,000 ex-felons. Until recent years, Iowa saw up to five percent of its residents ineligible to vote, including 33 percent of its African-American residents. Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia require former felons to apply for the right to vote to be restored.
Voter Identification - Six states—Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin, all controlled by Republican governors and legislatures—have passed laws requiring an official government ID to cast a ballot. Berman notes that some 10 percent of US citizens lack such identification, and the number of young and black voters, groups that traditionally lean Democratic, are much higher. The turn towards voter ID requirements began in 2008, when the US Supreme Court upheld an Indiana photo-ID requirement even though state lawyers could not produce a single instance of the kind of voter fraud that photo ID laws are designed to prevent. After the ruling, ALEC orchestrated a nationwide move towards photo ID requirements. ALEC wrote draft legislation for Republican legislators based on Indiana’s ID requirement. Five of the states that passed those laws had their legislation submitted by legislators who belong to ALEC. Heather Smith, president of the voter-registration group Rock the Vote, says: “We’re seeing the same legislation being proposed state by state by state. And they’re not being shy in any of these places about clearly and blatantly targeting specific demographic groups, including students.” In Texas, the Republican-dominated legislature passed “emergency” legislation that was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry saying that a concealed-weapons permit is acceptable ID, but a college ID is not. Republicans in Wisconsin effectively disenfranchised every college student by requiring that acceptable IDs contain information that no colleges put on their IDs. Dane County board supervisor Analiese Eicher says, “It’s like creating a second class of citizens in terms of who gets to vote.” In Wisconsin, for example, about half of African- and Hispanic-American citizens do not have a driver’s license, and the state has an extremely small number of Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices—some of which are only open one day a month. Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) attempted to close 16 DMV offices, all in heavily Democratic-voting areas. Berman notes, “Walker planned to close a DMV in Fort Atkinson, a liberal stronghold, while opening a new office 30 minutes away in the conservative district of Watertown.” Democratic governors in five states—Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina—have all vetoed ID laws. Voters in Mississippi and Montana are considering ballot initiatives requiring voter IDs. Legislation is currently pending in Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most restrictive law was signed into effect by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC). Voters must have a free state ID to vote—but they must pay for a passport or birth certificate. Brown-Dianis says, “It’s the stepsister of the poll tax.” Many elderly black residents who were born at home in the segregated South and were never issued birth certificates can no longer vote unless they go to family court to prove their identity.
Significant Impact on 2012 Voting - Berman writes that when these measures are taken in the aggregate, the turnout of Democrats to the 2012 votes will be significantly smaller, perhaps enough to throw races to Republican candidates. In July, Clinton told a group of student activists: “One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time. Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science. They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.” Clinton was referring to the 2010 elections, widely considered a Republican “wave” election in part because of far smaller turnouts among young and minority voters than in 2008, and because of a large number of “tea party” voters. Clinton added, “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”
Cracking Down on Voter Fraud? - Republicans insist that voter fraud is rampant in America. Since George W. Bush took office in 2001 after losing the popular vote (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), his administration made “voter fraud” a top priority for Justice Department prosecutors. In 2006, the DOJ fired two US Attorneys who refused to prosecute patently fraudulent voter fraud allegations. Bush advisor Karl Rove called voter fraud “an enormous and growing problem.” He told the Republican National Lawyers Association that America is “beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses.” The Republicans successfully destroyed the community activism group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after false allegations were made that it was, as Berman writes, “actively recruiting armies of fake voters to misrepresent themselves at the polls and cast illegal ballots for the Democrats.” A massive DOJ probe in 2006 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for intentionally impersonating another person at the polls, an action that the DOJ claimed was at the heart of the voter fraud investigation. Eighty-six cases of voter fraud did win convictions, but most of those were immigrants and former felons who did not intentionally cast illegal votes. An enormous investigation in Wisconsin resulted in 0.0007 percent of the electorate being prosecuted for voter fraud. And the Brennan Center report found the instance of voter fraud in America extraordinarily small (see 2007).
Voter Fraud Allegations Dog Obama Victory - Republican lawmakers and activists made a raft of allegations after the November 2008 elections that placed the White House in the hands of Barack Obama (D-IL). The 29 states that register voter affiliation showed a roughly 2-1 increase in new Democratic voters over Republicans for 2008, and Obama won almost 70 percent of those votes. Election reform expert Tova Wang says flatly, “This latest flood of attacks on voting rights is a direct shot at the communities that came out in historic numbers for the first time in 2008 and put Obama over the top.” Berman cites Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as emblematic of the Republican pushback against the Obama victory. Kobach is a former Bush-era Justice Department advisor who helped push through his state’s requirement that every voter prove his or her citizenship, ignoring the fact that Kansas has prosecuted exactly one case of voter fraud since 2006. Kobach used fear of illegal immigrants to help push his requirement through, stating without evidence, “In Kansas, the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive.” He also stated that many people were casting ballots in the name of dead voters, and cited the example of Alfred K. Brewer as a dead voter who mysteriously voted in 2008. However, as the Wichita Eagle showed, Brewer is very much alive. “I don’t think this is heaven,” Brewer told the Eagle, “[n]ot when I’m raking leaves.” Representative John Lewis (D-AL), a civil rights crusader who was brutally beaten during the 1960s effort to win voting rights for African-Americans, says bluntly, “Voting rights are under attack in America.” On the House floor in July, Lewis told the assemblage, “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.”
Fighting Voter Disenfranchisement - Voting-rights organizations are fighting back as best they can. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging several of the new voter-restriction laws in court. Congressional Democrats are pushing the Department of Justice to block or weaken laws that impede minority voters from exercising their rights. Lewis says, “The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act.” Meanwhile, many voting-rights experts predict chaos at the polls in November 2012, as voters react with confusion, frustration, and anger at being barred from voting. “Our democracy is supposed to be a government by, of, and for the people,” says Browne-Dianis. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race you are, or where you live in the country—we all get to have the same amount of power by going into the voting booth on Election Day. But those who passed these laws believe that only some people should participate. The restrictions undermine democracy by cutting off the voices of the people.” [Rolling Stone, 8/30/2011]
Entity Tags: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, Scott Kevin Walker, Rick Scott, Republican Party, Ari Berman, Tova Wang, US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, Alfred K. Brewer, Paul Weyrich, American Civil Liberties Union, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, American Legislative Exchange Council, Analiese Eicher, Terry Branstad, League of Women Voters, Mike Fasano, Charles Koch, Charles Joseph (“Charlie”) Crist, Jr, Brennan Center for Justice, Barack Obama, David Koch, Early Voting Information Center, Nikki Haley, Heather Smith, John Lewis, Judith Browne-Dianis, John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, George W. Bush, Kris Kobach, Karl C. Rove
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice shows that just three “independent” corporate political organizations outspent the US labor movement in judicial elections for 2009-10. The report, entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-10,” shows that three corporate interest groups—the Ohio Chamber of Commerce (Partnership for America’s Future), the Business Council of Alabama, and the Illinois Civil Justice League (JustPAC) outspent the US labor movement 13-1 in trying to influence state Supreme Court elections. Together, the three groups spent $3,554,445 on activities involving judicial elections. In total, organized labor groups spent $261,4230. Labor unions have always contended that they could not spend nearly as much on election activities as corporations. [Skaggs et al., 10/2011 ; Think Progress, 10/27/2011]
Rolling Stone magazine reports that despite no evidence of voter fraud except in extremely isolated incidents, Republicans in over a dozen states are passing laws that disenfranchise voters under the guise of “protecting the vote” (see August 30, 2011). The voters most affected by these laws, the magazine reports, are more likely to vote Democratic in national and state elections. Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), who is fighting the Justice Department to allow him to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the state electoral rolls, has said: “We need to have fair elections. When you go out to vote, you want to make sure that the other individuals that are voting have a right to vote.” However, a 2007 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law shows that almost every allegation of voter fraud is false. The chance of a vote being fraudulent, according to the study, is 0.0004 percent (see 2007).
Double Voting - Many claim that “double voting,” or a single voter casting a vote twice or more, is a rampant issue. In reality, it almost never occurs. The allegations that are made almost always result from different people with similar or even identical names casting separate votes, or simple clerical errors, such as voters being counted as having cast their ballots when in reality they did not. In Missouri in 2000 and again in 2002, hundreds of “double votes” were alleged to have been cast, with some allegations saying that the same voter cast their votes in Kansas and Missouri. When reporters and other investigators looked into the claims, only four cases were shown to have been actual double voting, for a documented fraud rate of 0.0003 percent.
Dead Voters - These are allegations that living people cast ballots using the names of dead voters. Almost every allegation of this nature has proven to stem from flawed matches of death records and voter rolls. In the 2000 Georgia elections, allegations of 5,412 “dead voter” votes were made over the last 20 years. All but one of those allegations turned out to be an incorrect match between death records and voter rolls. One example: “Alan J. Mandel,” who died in 1997, apparently cast a vote in 1998. In reality, voter Alan J. Mandell—two Ls—cast a legitimate vote. Election workers checked the wrong name off their list.
Voting with Fraudulent Addresses - The allegation is that people use fraudulent addresses to register to vote. Such allegations usually stem from mail coming back from the given address marked undeliverable. In almost every instance, the person in question has moved, the individual piece of mail was misdelivered or misaddressed, or the address is recorded incorrectly. In one instance, New Hampshire election officials became concerned when 88 voters had registered to vote using similar addresses from property belonging to Daniel Webster College. The addressees were legitimate: all 88 voters were students at that school who lived on college property.
Voting by Convicted Felons - This is a favorite allegation: that convicted felons stripped of their right to vote have voted anyway. It happens more often than some other forms of alleged voter fraud, but in almost every case, the felon in question was unaware that his or her right to vote had been taken away, a misapprehension often reinforced by misinformed election officials. Even then, almost every instance of “felon voters” turns out to be a case of clerical error: someone was convicted of a crime that does not result in their right to vote being removed, typographical errors, voters with names similar to that of convicted felons, and so forth. In the 2000 Florida elections, the state claimed that 5,643 ineligible felons had cast illegal votes. The list provided by the state was almost completely populated by eligible voters who were misidentified as ineligible felons.
Voting by Noncitizens - Allegations that US elections are being “thrown” by huge numbers of illegal immigrants casting their votes are widespread. In reality, there is not one case of an illegal immigrant intentionally casting an illicit vote. For example, Washington state officials investigated the citizenship of 1,668 registered voters in 2005, after allegations that they were illegal aliens were raised based on their “foreign-sounding names.” Every one of the voters on the list was legitimate.
Registration Fraud - On occasion, fraudulent registration forms do get submitted. However, the number of cases where a person submitted a form in someone else’s name in order to impersonate that person is extremely small. Some people fill out the forms with deliberately ridiculous information (such as claiming their name to be “Mickey Mouse”), while others make honest mistakes filling out the forms. In a few cases, voter registration workers working on commission have committed fraud in order to make more money. The Brennan Center report found: “Most reports of registration fraud do not actually claim that the fraud happens so that ineligible people can vote at the polls. Indeed, we are aware of no recent substantiated case in which registration fraud has resulted in fraudulent votes being cast.”
Voting by Dogs - The Brennan Center found nine instances of people registering their dogs to vote. Six of those were from people trying to prove a point: that they could register their dogs to vote. (The penalty for registering a dog to vote is up to 30 years in federal prison.) The Brennan report documented two cases of someone casting a vote in the name of a dog. One was submitted in Venice, California, with the word “VOID” and a paw print drawn on the ballot, and another, also cast in Venice, California, was submitted under the name of “Raku Bowman.”
Vote Buying - Rolling Stone notes that this does happen on rare occasions, with campaign officials or others convincing voters to vote for a particular candidate in return for money, food, or cigarettes. But, the magazine notes, this is vote buying, not voter fraud. It, too, is illegal, and will not be curbed by voter ID laws and the like.
Fraud by Election Officials - Like vote buying, this happens on rare occasions, but is not voter fraud per se. Rolling Stone writes, “If election officials are willing to break the law, rules designed to restrict voting won’t stop them.” [Rolling Stone, 6/12/2012]
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