Big voter turnouts and perceptions of fraud

Since North Carolina Republicans introduced a Voter ID bill in February that would require all citizens to show a photo ID before voting, one thing has become crystal clear.

State efforts are part of a nationwide drive to tighten rules on voting. In the past two months no less than 13 state legislatures, all of them controlled by Republicans, have advanced Voter ID legislation.

Sponsors in North Carolina and elsewhere claim showing driver's licenses or a similar card will eliminate voter fraud and, as the North Carolina bill is named, "Restore Confidence in Government." Democrats have countered that there has been no wave of election fraud that needs fixing. Instead, they insist, Republicans are trying to make it harder for the elderly, the poor and the transient - those who often lack driver's licenses - to vote. They compare the measure to historic poll taxes that once disfranchised thousands of North Carolinians.

Partisan battles over vote fraud are hardly new to North Carolina. Historically, claims of vote fraud have been loudest directly after moments of suffrage expansion.

The last time Republicans controlled the legislature they championed suffrage rights, coming to power as part of a Populist-fusion ticket that galvanized poor white and black voter participation across the state in 1896. Democrats, in turn, claimed massive voter fraud had polluted the state, and linked claims of voter fraud to white victimization that culminated in the return of Democrats to power and new voting rules that disfranchised most African-American men and many poor whites as well.

Claims of election fraud also followed the arrival of full voting rights in the 1960s, as conservative activists sought to discredit African-American and poor people's political gains. In both instances, arguments for white supremacy gained traction by linking increased voting by poor people and people of color, in particular, with vote fraud.

Although nothing in current Voter ID laws explicitly mentions the race of the potential voter, some Democrats claim Republican sponsors of this year's legislation are trying to turn back the clock, to craft a whiter electorate. Republicans, on the contrary, claim moral high ground by defending the voting rights of those who participate "legitimately." Illegal aliens have no such rights, Republicans argue, and their efforts to vote under fake surnames necessitate the new law.

But why would undocumented immigrants, who fear deportation for any encounter with law enforcement, risk all by voting? And is there any evidence that such fraud exists or has been increasing?

In North Carolina, there was no appreciable uptick in voter fraud during the last presidential election. The registered electorate did grow by more than 500,000, however, making 2008 one of the largest expansions of suffrage in the state's history.

Many of these new registrants were historically sporadic voters - poor people, African-Americans and especially students. Durham County saw the largest proportional increase in voter registrations in the state, yet not a single credible case of voter fraud was documented during 2008.

Republican sponsors of the Voter ID bill suggest that the lack of voter fraud convictions proves there is a problem. Such "logic" relies on a perception, with deep historical roots, that when poor and minority voters turn out, some kind of chicanery or political corruption is at work.

Such perceptions, largely impervious to facts about voter fraud, are fueled by the very real mobilizations that occurred in the last election. Indeed, what was truly remarkable about 2008 was not voter fraud but the dramatic ways new voters transformed the electorate and the outcome. John McCain won every group of voters above the age of 30, but he still lost the state because Barack Obama won the 18-to-29 year-old group by better than a 3-to-1 margin, the largest generational voting gap of any state in the union.

It is these sporadic voters, not undocumented immigrants, who are the real targets of the Voter ID bill.

Rather than maintaining their majorities by cutting suffrage rights, our Republican majorities should look to our history for the right moral lessons. Instead of spending millions of dollars implementing an unnecessary Voter ID bill while simultaneously cutting K-12 school funding, they should compete for the loyalties of these same sporadic voters, many of whom comprise the next generation of state leaders. I urge Gov. Beverly Purdue to protect the voting rights of all of North Carolina's residents and veto the Republican-sponsored Voter ID bill.

Gunther Peck is an associate professor of history and public policy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.  This commentary was first published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.