Elections not stolen through ‘voter fraud’

Joe Purvis could not stop laughing. It was a serious subject, but he couldn’t stop laughing. And sometimes it’s better to laugh. Relieves tension.

Purvis, a Democrat, was laughing at the Republican Party of Arkansas, on the morning after House Republicans, following the Senate’s lead (and the state GOP’s platform), overrode Governor Beebe’s veto of a bill requiring prospective voters provide photo identification at the polling place. The new law ostensibly targets “voter fraud.”

On party-line votes in both chambers, the men and women of the Republican establishment proved (a) they are younger than Purvis and me, (b) don’t know how elections are stolen, (c) are totally unaware of, or unconcerned with, the ethnic insult the statute represents, or (d) a combination thereof. Whether the law’s intent is — as opponents vociferously contend, and its sponsors stoutly deny — to depress voting among racial minorities and the low-income requires a reading of the heart, and that won’t be done here.

Purvis and I, we know how elections are stolen, and it is not through “voter fraud.”

Purvis knows because, as a young law student in the 1970s, he assisted the late Tom Glaze, founder of the Election Laws Institute and later an Arkansas Supreme Court justice, attack election chicanery across Arkansas, especially Conway County. I know because I was born in Conway County, and I know how things used to be.

They used to be like this: if the favored candidate of the power structure in any “machine” jurisdiction needed a few extra votes to put him or her over the top, no problem. Ballots could be made to disappear. Or, conversely if just as mysteriously, appear. Absentee votes, especially. And speaking of absentees, the long-dead were fully capable of voting from the Great Beyond. As were military personnel abroad; having forgot to request a mail ballot, they flew back from Korea or Vietnam to vote in person, unbeknownst to wives, girlfriends, parents, unnoticed by their old friends, then just as quickly returned to the battlefront.

This was fraud, to be certain. But it wasn’t “voter fraud.” It was fraud by those conducting the election. And it happened, mostly, after the polls closed.

“The smart move was to spread it (the ballot cooking) over several precincts,” Purvis said, to avoid drawing attention to any one polling place. “They figured out how many votes they needed for so-and-so, and then they went to work.” It helped that paper ballots were commonplace; it helped even more that paper burns.

Voter fraud, Purvis said, “is a bogus issue. Beebe hit the nail on the head in his veto message — it’s an effort to correct a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Stealing an election using individuals ineligible to vote would be prohibitively inefficient, such would be the recruitment and coordination, and the money, required to equip the tools of the conspiracy — fraudulent voters — with the credentials already required at the polling place and then get them there. Additionally, the scenario anticipates election officials behaving like potted plants.

The need for vigilance at elections is constant, but we are still awaiting evidence that “voter fraud” in Arkansas is anything but paranoia — or worse. Without exception the solitary example offered by advocates of voter ID is the election of a (now former) state representative from Crittenden County who, with others, admitted in federal court that cash, vodka and fast food were used to buy the seat. Rarely, if ever, do they mention that absentee ballots were used to effect the scheme, that photo IDs would not have deterred it. In fact the new ID law addresses absentee voting, in a section certain to be among the several that opponents will ask the courts to review. Perhaps then we can all view the evidence.

I have two suppositions about the matter, though I know for fact I am not alone in supposing them. First, and for all the complaints by (especially) Democrats, a photo identification mandate as a condition of voting likely will have little if any near-term impact on the outcome of any election in Arkansas — statewide, district or local. Second, the affront the new stipulations pose to people of color, not only African-Americans but Latinos, could provide Democrats the impetus needed for a long-overdue voter registration drive. It would not be an inexpensive undertaking and would be labor-intensive, and almost certainly is beyond the capacity of the party’s sclerotic, arthritic county committees. Should someone light the fire, however, someone who could harness the anger in the black ministerial and political ranks, who could enlist young Democrats and college students, who could revive the Democratic womens’ clubs that once were a force to be reckoned with — then voter ID could backfire on the GOP.

There would be no cries of “voter fraud.” And old hands like Purvis could keep laughing.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.