Ballot Box Vigilantes

One thing to be ready for on Election Tuesday is the invasion of the ballot box vigilantes. These guardians of the vote will be out at polling places around the country to challenge any suspicious-looking voters. By all accounts, they are an angry and well-organized bunch, convinced that America’s electorate is riddled with non-citizens, fictitious characters, and impersonators who imperil the rights of ordinary Americans.

The prime mover in this mighty people’s movement is an organization called True the Vote. Founded in 2009 to resist apparent voting irregularities in a Texas county, the group claims to be non-partisan and, indeed, currently holds non-profit status. But a quick view of its history reveals that it is simply an offshoot of a Tea Party organization called the King Street Patriots, which describes itself as a defender of freedom, capitalism, and American exceptionalism. Concerned over “threats” to liberty in the electoral system, True the Vote focuses its attention on minority voters, whom it sees as overwhelming the voter rolls and serving as fodder for the opposing party.

Responding with Minuteman efficiency to this looming menace, True the Vote has recruited a legion of “citizen watchdogs” and poll watchers to deploy during the upcoming elections, largely in minority communities, to rectify the voting process. But the group’s national elections coordinator, Bill Ouren, spells out its true intentions in clear language: targeted voters should feel like they’re “driving and seeing the police following you,” he states. They are being served notice that they are under surveillance. True the Vote has mounted road signs in some states warning that voter fraud could lead to long prison sentences, and it has stigmatized low income voters in speeches, calling them “food stamp armies.” It is hard not to interpret such actions as subtle or not so subtle attempts at voter harassment.

Indeed, that interpretation is confirmed by True the Vote’s broader campaign to push for burdensome voter legislation at the state level. In the last two years, it has supported strict limitations on organized registration and inflexible voter ID laws. When it suits them, tea partiers clearly have no problem standing up for bureaucratic red tape and tough regulation. Its efforts have born at least partial fruit in Republican-governed states like Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The organization, of course, bases its restrictive agenda on claims of widespread voter fraud. But such claims have been repeatedly debunked on both empirical and rational grounds. Empirically, there is little solid evidence for this kind of fraud, given that cases of it are few and actual convictions even fewer. One study estimates that individual voter fraud happens about .00004% of the time, about as likely as getting killed by lightening. And rationally, since new voters must declare under oath that they are citizens, there are huge disincentives to making a false declaration. Who would want to risk five years in prison and $10,000 in fines for the miniscule payoff of casting a single vote? The idea of it defies common sense.

Discernible amounts of fraud, of course, do exist in American elections as they do everywhere, involving such things as missing ballot boxes, false tallies, and the manipulation of voting machines by rogue actors. But these crimes involve the operation of the voting system itself rather than the discrete acts of individual voters. Unfortunately, the laws being pushed by our vigilante friends in no way address  systemic issues. Their focus is entirely on burdening the individual voter.

Avid defenders of voter purity seem unfazed by the onus that some potential voters would bear under the new laws. Florida legislator Mike Bennett, sponsor of that state’s draconian voting law, voices a typical Tea Party sentiment: “I don’t have a problem with making it harder. [Voting] should not be easy.” And let’s be clear about those for whom it would be “harder”: it would be the underclasses, the infirm, and those without driver’s licenses (or, in states like Florida, firearm permits). These folks would need to traverse a system of fees and bureaucracy hefty enough to deter all but the hardiest. They would have to earn the right to vote by jumping through hoops and circumventing roadblocks.

As Americans, we need to remind ourselves that voting is not a privilege, but a right. Our nation has served as an example for the world when it has upheld the rights of its citizens, not restricted them. Passing restrictive legislation and sending out the posse on election day to intimidate voters is not the way one does things in a democratic society. It’s time to remember where our values lie.

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