One of the biggest stories in Illinois right now (bigger than Rahm Emanuel's every move and thought) is how Congressman Mark Kirk, running for President Obama's former senate seat, was unknowingly caught on tape telling state Republican leaders that he is funding "the largest voter integrity program in fifteen years for the state of Illinois." The plan, he explained, is to place election monitors in certain precincts that are, according to Kirk, especially susceptible to voter fraud. Those precincts are in places like the Southside of Chicago and the Westside of Chicago–i.e., areas that happen to be composed mainly of Democratic and African American voters unlikely to vote for Kirk.
The Kirk Campaign has defended the program, saying it has nothing to do with race and is merely an effort to cut down on "...voter fraud that is well-known in Illinois…." It’s nothing you haven’t heard from the Republicans and their allies before; accusations of voter fraud, particularly in minority-heavy districts, have been rampant ever since Obama seemed poised to win the presidency in 2008* and continue to proliferate now. But what you may not have heard is that the type of election stealing that conservatives claim to be stopping seems to be exceedingly rare.
A few years ago the Brennan Center for Justice, at New York University, undertook an exhaustive analysis of voter fraud allegations--everything from reports that people were voting twice to stories of dead people casting ballots. The vast majority of allegations turned out to be baseless and, in a 2007 report, the Center's Justin Levin wrote that "It's more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls." More recently, in a 2010 book called The Myth of Voter Fraud, Barnard political science professor Lorraine Minnite did her own analysis based on state government records. She reached the same conclusion. According to Minnite, between 2002 and 2005 there was only one case of voter registration fraud and five cases of people voting twice. That’s a total of six cases within a three year span.
That’s not to say election stealing never takes place: As the blogger Archpundit notes, there have been documented cases of absentee ballot fraud and phone jamming to interfere with get-out-the-vote efforts, just to name two. But Kirk’s “integrity” campaign won’t deter that sort of trickery. The only thing it will deter is turnout in communities likely to reject Kirk.
Gee, could that be the whole idea?
*Disclaimer: My father is a lawyer with a nonprofit that worked with ACORN, which has been the target of a lot of voter fraud claims.
Daniel Strauss, a senior at the University of Michigan, is a journalist who blogs about politics and Chicago.