By Lorraine Minnite
First Published September, 2011
Editor’s Note: The cried of “voter fraud’ has duped citizens in many states to accept needless barriers to voting. Here, Rutgers University professor Lorraine Minnite, author of “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” debunks the nonsense spread by a leading perpetrator of voting fraud myths, Hans von Spakovsky.
Propaganda is playing a crucial role in the fast-moving campaign to enact more onerous voter identification (ID) laws in the states. In this short blog post I want to show how the discussions of the issue of voter photo ID exhibit some of the salient features of political propaganda to obscure the real rationale for these laws: partisan political advantage.
As an example, consider the puzzling re-emergence of a sordid tale of election shenanigans from some three decades ago. The scene is a series of Democratic primary races, and the locale is Brooklyn, New York, circa the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 2008 Heritage Foundation legal memo on the case and countless other reports , op-eds , blog postings, and government testimony advocating for stricter voter ID laws, Hans von Spakovsky, the controversial former Georgia GOP county leader and one-time U.S. Justice Department official, has called this story “the best-documented case of widespread and continuing voter identity or impersonation fraud” in “living memory.” It stands as a much-cited rebuttal to the critics who reject claims of an epidemic of voter fraud as unsupported by evidence.
Von Spakovsky’s source for this story is a 1984 Brooklyn grand jury report , and his abuse of this report is striking. He takes historical events and twists them so that they point to the wrong set of villains. The grand jury investigated an egregious case of political corruption committed by politicians and election workers, but he says the case is about voter impersonation fraud. The findings and recommendations of the grand jury were sensible, but von Spakovsky distorts them to promote the call for more restrictive voter ID rules. The grand jury did not come to these conclusions.
Von Spakovsky’s Brooklyn tale plays a role in the expansive propaganda campaign promoted by Republican Party operatives to stoke the anger of the party’s rightwing base (via the code word “fraud”), and to soften up a mostly disinterested public skeptical of backward-moving restrictions on the franchise – like the requirement to show a current government-issued ID to vote. As I’ve argued elsewhere, central to this campaign is the myth of voter fraud .
Propaganda is a communications strategy that relies on specific rhetorical devices and methods of presenting information to persuade and influence the opinions of others in order to control their actions. Propagandists distort the truth through selective storytelling, logical fallacies, unwarranted extrapolation, and repetition of false conclusions, providing a basis for hidden political agendas and fear-mongering. In the contemporary discussions about voter ID, what could be more misleading than to go back 27 years to obscure events in Brooklyn documented in an almost impossible to find grand jury report? Unknowing readers could think von Spakovsky is plucking the example out of a vast trove of evidence when he’s not.
The 1984 Brooklyn grand jury report that is the source of von Spakovsky’s 2008 Heritage Foundation memo documents the results of an investigation by the Brooklyn D.A. into a pattern of corruption by a de-throned state senator named Vander Beatty and his allies within the ranks of the Kings County Democratic Party organization.
The Grand Jury found that over a period of 14 years, a group of people committed blatant voter registration and voting fraud to defeat opponents who challenged the status quo control of electoral politics in the borough. The struggle reflected a conflict between an established black political class, supported by an older white ethnic-dominated political machine, and a black reform movement emerging from the public school-based battles for community control in Central Brooklyn.
The fraud was flagrant and could not have been committed without the assistance of elections officials who knowingly accepted bogus registration cards, violated state laws in the handling of registration cards, and attempted to conceal forged registration documents.
The culminating event occurred when the machine-backed Beatty lost a congressional primary for retiring Shirley Chisholm’s U.S. House seat to the reformer Major Owens. Beatty’s gang snuck into the Board of Elections, hid in a bathroom ceiling until the employees went home for the day, and then tampered with voter registration cards to manufacture the appearance of fraud on the part of the Owens campaign. The fraudulent fraud discovered, Beatty then used the forged evidence to charge Owens with fraud and to demand that the results of the election be thrown out. He almost got away with this scandalous ploy.
Von Spakovsky tells a disembodied version of this story and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the larger context that framed the corruption. Moreover, to distract the reader from the fact that these events occurred a quarter-century ago, he ignores how rules and procedures have changed since 1984 (even in Brooklyn!). von Spakovsky exploits the ambiguity of the word “fraud” to commit a major logical fallacy. He claims this 27-year old story of internecine political warfare among Brooklyn Democrats presents the best-documented case of widespread and continuing voter identity or impersonation fraud that could be prevented with voter photo ID. But since his premise is wrong, so is his conclusion.
The Grand Jury’s recommendations barely touched on voter ID. Grand Jury members were sensitive to the danger of their report being used to justify the tightening up of access to registration and voting. The report flatly states, “The Grand Jury is not advocating that existing electoral rights be restricted or unduly encumbered, but that safeguards be created to protect those rights from being undermined by fraud” (p. 3).
For the Grand Jury, since the main problem was document tampering, forgery, and corrupt politicians plotting conspiracies to rig elections, these safeguards largely took the form of a plea to improve administrative procedures, address under-staffing and training of Board of Elections personnel, and especially, to make changes to way the Board of Elections secured its facilities. Von Spakovsky conveniently does not mention these recommendations, despite the fact that a discussion about the use of closed circuit televisions cameras, security mirrors, and alarm systems “to protect against illegal use of or entry into the facilities” (p. 26) takes up several pages of the report.
In addition, the grand jury called on the Governor and the State Legislature to “promptly study the problems of election fraud identified in this report…and evaluate various proposals and strike a balance between solving the problem of election fraud and continuing the recent gains in facilitating unimpeded access to the ballot box” (p. 21). One proposal the grand jury thought worthy of study was to require identification from voters at the time of registration (which New York now does) and voting (which New York does not do). More importantly, however, was the grand jury’s own recommendation to require identification of persons seeking admission to the Board of Elections .
Von Spakovsky commits another logical fallacy in setting up this story to justify his preference for stricter ID laws. He argues that the reason why there is so little evidence of voter impersonation fraud (and, perhaps why we have to resort to an example from Brooklyn in the 1970s) is because, “Election officials cannot discover an impersonation if they are denied the very tool needed to detect it – an identification requirement” (p. 1). But the ID requirement cannot both prevent fraud and make it detectable. Advocates of government-issued photo voter ID, including von Spakovsky, have never marshaled reliable evidence of contemporary voter impersonation fraud. If we have no evidence of voter impersonation fraud before the enactment of voter ID laws, and no evidence of voter impersonation fraud after the enactment of voter ID laws, how is it possible that voter ID laws are both preventing voter fraud and making it more detectable? This is circular reasoning – if voter ID eliminates voter impersonation fraud, which is hard to do since there is virtually no evidence that it actually exists, how then does it make fraud detectable?
Von Spakovsky states that, “Even though it led to no indictments, the New York investigation still serves a valuable purpose. Most clearly, it demonstrates that voter impersonation is a real problem and one that is nearly impossible for election officials to detect given the weak tools usually at their disposal” (p. 7).
This is not correct. A 27-year old grand jury report does not demonstrate that voter impersonation is a real problem today. Nor does it “provide good reason to believe that [the…] conspiracy…could not have occurred if voters had been required to present photo identification when they voted” (p. 7). Von Spakovsky incorrectly assumes that people this intent on stealing elections could be thwarted by a photo ID requirement (seethis recent Washington Post article for the growing ease with which “untold thousands” of flawless fraudulent drivers licenses have flowed into the U.S. recently from a single source in China).
Von Spakovsky states that, “More recent cases provide evidence of what may be a wider problem that is very difficult to detect in jurisdictions that do not require voter identification” (p. 5).
What is that evidence? Not much. Von Spakovsky tells us that a college professor testified in 2006 before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that he was not able to vote once because someone else voted in his name. The professor wasn’t able to find out why this occurred, what error was made, “and the polling place,” he said, “didn’t keep any record of it” (p. 7). In 2007, U.S. Justice Department litigation against Noxubee, Mississippi Democratic Party leader, Ike Brown, unearthed a former deputy sheriff who said he saw Brown “outside the door of the precinct talking to a young black lady…and heard him tell her to go in there and vote, to use any name, and that no one was going to say anything” (p. 7-8). Von Spakovsky’s third piece of evidence comes from a 2007 city council run-off election in Hoboken, New Jersey, where a homeless man living in a shelter said he was paid $10 to vote for a specific person. No vote was actually cast because an alert election challenger suspected something fishy was afoot and physically chased the man away, calling the police who apprehended him. Hoboken has non-partisan local elections, but the shenanigans appear to have been the product of yet another factional dispute within a local Democratic Party organization.
This is hardly evidence upon which one can erect a persuasive claim of widespread if undetectable fraud.
Von Spakovsky’s re-telling of a story about political corruption among Brooklyn Democrats of yore is peppered with references to “widespread impersonation fraud” and “a vote-fraud conspiracy that had been successfully carried out without detection for 14 years,” in which “thousands of fraudulent votes went undetected for 14 years.” In fact, while egregious, the Brooklyn grand jury did not find that the corruption unveiled by the investigation was widespread in the way von Spakovsky implies. Their report states that the corruption was committed by “ a group of individuals…in a limited geographic area of Kings County from 1968 to 1982” (emphasis added, see p. 1-2).
No matter. Propaganda does not hew close to the facts. It seeks to manipulate emotion by selectively filtering and framing those facts. It draws on myth and symbols where facts are inconvenient. Even old Boss Tweed as a precursor to Ike Brown gets a mention in von Spakovsky’s memo. And although “illegal aliens” never made an appearance in the Brooklyn saga, von Spakovsky throws them in as a looming threat to free elections. He implies they are somehow eager to vote and asserts that this nefarious conduct can be thwarted with government-issued ID (“…requiring a government-issued photo ID can prevent illegal aliens from voting,” p. 8).
Having carefully framed a story of petty political corruption from long ago as a cautionary tale of great relevance for our democracy today – and drawn the wrong conclusions – von Spakovsky distracts the reader from the big problems with his argument by repetitively asserting a link between his vastly exaggerated characterization of the problem of voter fraud and his preferred solution, restrictive voter photo ID requirements.
For example, on the first page of his Heritage Foundation memo, he lists “Talking Points,” one of which says, “Voter-ID requirements directly target in-person voting fraud. An ID requirement would have defeated all the fraudulent practices employed by the New York vote-fraud conspiracy,” which isn’t true.
Referring to litigation that enjoined Ohio from implementing certain restrictions on voter registration drives (Project Vote v. Blackwell), he states, “Even if the court rulings were legally correct (a questionable conclusion), that is all the more reasons for a state to correct for potential fraud by requiring some form of reasonable voter ID at the polls,” (p. 7) as if states currently have no protections against potential fraud.
Two paragraphs later, von Spakovsky sums up the Brooklyn case: “…the investigation provides good reason to believe that this 14-year-long conspiracy to submit thousands (if not tens of thousands) of fraudulent votes in New York City could not have occurred if voters had been required to present photo identification when they voted,” (p. 7) a claim that is simply unsupported by the case he presents.
Finally, on the last page of his memo, von Spakovsky makes this false claim: “In states without identification requirements, election officials have no way to prevent bogus votes from being cast by unscrupulous individuals based on fictitious voter registrations, by impersonators, or by non-citizens who are registered to vote – another growing problem.” For the statement to be true, states that do not require ID documents also would have no rules and checks in place to guard against fraudulent registrations, not the case in any state.
In the age of the Internet, the expanding use of propaganda techniques in American politics is one of the most important, if overlooked, developments of the early 21 st century. Hans von Spakovsky’s repeated reference to an obscure 27-year old Brooklyn grand jury report as the best evidence of the contemporary scourge of voter impersonation fraud is a kind of fraud itself. Instead of evidence of fraud, he gives us evidence of the propaganda being used to distort the truth about fraud . As good as it is, however, the propaganda about voter fraud can’t conceal everything. The lack of concern among voter ID proponents like von Spakovsky for the likely ill effects of these new laws on the electoral participation of vulnerable citizens lacking the requisite ID makes the ugly politics of the ongoing voter ID campaign all the more apparent.
Rutgers University professor Lorraine Minnite is the author of The Myth of Voter Fraud.
© 2011 Lorraine Minnite