Out of the blue, Florida recently asked a 91-year-old World War II veteran to provide proof of his U.S. citizenship — or he wouldn't be allowed to register to vote. Bill Internicola, born and raised in America, sent the state the information it requested and military papers to boot, according to NPR.
So why was this "flabbergasted" senior citizen targeted by Florida? Republicans across the country are pushing new state laws to stop "voter fraud" — a crime so demonstrably rare that many critics assume these laws are meant not to stop fraud, but to disenfranchise Democratic voters. And as more and more laws pass — in Pennsylvania, an incredible 9 percent of the electorate may be shut out by a new voter ID law — many innocent citizens like Internicola are becoming victims.
One of the legislators leading the charge is Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla). Thanks to Scott, if you're an ex-convict, an early-riser, or have moved recently, you're going to have a lot of trouble casting your vote in Florida. Scott's latest tactic is purging noncitizens from the state's voter rolls, with questionable results. According to The Miami Herald, the state-produced list of non-citizens has targeted "hundreds of actual citizens who are lawful voters."
Between 2000 and 2010, there were 47,000 UFO sightings, 441 Americans killed by lightning — and only 13 cases of in-person voter impersonation.
The Department of Justice is suing Florida to stop this particular law in its tracks, on the grounds that it violates the National Voter Registration Act. But winning this battle alone won't win the war. All over the country, courts are struggling to defend our right to vote against legislators who are stomping on that right: some, accidently — others, with reckless enthusiasm.
Eleven states have now passed laws that require voters to show photo ID and 16 additional states have laws pending, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. Three states have started requiring voters to demonstrate U.S. citizenship, and six states are restricting registration in other ways — all in the name of stopping the crime of voter fraud.
But is there really a terrifying epidemic of voter fraud in America?
Hans von Spakovsky, who served two years as a member of the Federal Election Commission and now works as a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, tells me that "there is a long history of voter fraud in this country that has been documented and could make the difference in a close election. Voting is a very precious right, and we should make sure we protect that right."
That's the conservative rationale behind these kinds of voter laws: Fraudulent voters are jeopardizing the integrity of the election process.
No one's going to argue that voter fraud isn't harmful and illegal, but finding evidence of its "long history" is like hunting for jackalopes. As Mother Jones put it, between 2000 and 2010, there were 47,000 UFO sightings, 441 Americans killed by lightning — and only 13 cases of in-person voter impersonation.
"Voter fraud is extraordinarily rare," the Brennan Center finds in its in-depth investigation. "By throwing all sorts of election anomalies under the "voter fraud" umbrella, however, advocates for such laws artificially inflate the apparent need for these restrictions."
So why are legislators working so hard to stop such a rare phenomenon? Justin Levitt, an associate professor at Loyola Law School, tells me that "some of them honestly think they are solving a real problem — even though the data shows that's simply not so. Others see it as an opportunity for a short-term advantage. And in my opinion, using halls of power to keep eligible American citizens from voting is an abuse of power."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that voters affected by voter fraud laws are disproportionally younger, poorer, more mobile, non-white — and Democratic. In March, the Justice Department blocked a Texas voter ID law on the grounds that it discriminated against more than 600,000 Texans who did not have personal identification, many of whom were Hispanic.
Von Spakovsky, who has championed several controversial voting efforts, tells me that the "the turnout of black and Latino voters went way up" in 2008 after a Georgia voter ID law was put in place.
Additionally, he writes that after the law was instated, a "remarkably small" number of Georgia residents who didn't have an ID applied for one — supposedly contradicting the "unsupported claim of voter ID opponents that there are hundreds of thousands of voters in every state who do not have a photo ID."
Levitt doesn't buy these statistics. "Georgia requires a birth certificate for citizens born in the country to get a photo ID" and "requires a photo ID to get an official birth certificate," so it can actually be "quite hard to get one."
As for minority voter turnout, Levitt says that measuring it from 2004 to 2008 is "absurd," as Georgia went from being a non-battleground state in 2004, to a battleground for President Obama's election in 2008. Minority turnout "would have been a tidal wave, no matter what the laws were."
Is there any good news? Well, the courts continue to strike down the worst voter fraud laws. Additionally, as it gets closer to election time, it's going to be harder for legislators to implement new laws without running into transitional problems.
But the bad news is that the laws that have already passed are going to make it incrementally harder for eligible American citizens to vote. And come November, it's clear that the new laws are going to affect races across the country — and quite possibly the presidential election, if Florida's electoral fiasco in 2000 is anything to go by.
And that's exactly why we need to stop recklessly passing voter fraud laws. Sure, there's a chance the legislation might actually catch that mythical unicorn, the fraudulent voter. But it's far more likely that it's going to stop people like Bill Internicola from voting instead.
Gov. Scott, of anyone, should know that: In 2006, when he tried to vote, he was told he wasn't registered because election officials mistakenly thought he was dead.
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.