Election workers in counties across the country began receiving the strange phone calls earlier this summer. They were from student journalists asking what was, to many workers, a startling question – one they had never been asked before: How many cases of election fraud have you had in your county since the year 2000?
“They had to go find that information because they didn’t have it readily available,” explained student reporter Joe Henke at this event, which considered who can vote in America, and the latest innovations to put voting information in the hands of the public. Henke was of 24 reporters who worked on a 10-week investigation into voter ID laws and election fraud in America this summer, a project sponsored by Arizona State University’s News 21 program. And he, along with student Maryann Batlle and Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the project, came to New America to present the investigation’s findings.
News 21, headquartered at ASU, is an investigative journalism initiative that harnesses the reporting talents of students across the country during the spring and summer to examine an issue at the forefront of public debate.
They picked the topic of voting rights this year because of the “turmoil in the country over voter ID laws being passed in a number of states,” Downie explained. Questions about voter fraud “became very polarized…there was a lot of rhetoric on both sides, and even a lot of the media coverage was about rhetoric rather than the underlying facts."
Here’s that rhetoric: Advocates for voter ID laws say all voters should be required to flash a state-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Why? To combat rampant voter fraud. They claim voter ID laws uphold the integrity of the American electoral system – and preserve the sanctity of the voting process. And they’re overwhelmingly Republican.
The other side protests that these voter ID laws disenfranchise certain groups of voters – such as minorities, students and the elderly – who tend to vote Democratic. They say the "voting fraud" claim holds no water, and that the real reason behind the fight for voter ID laws in some states is to suppress votes.
The News 21 students sought to chip away at the rhetoric and unearth the underlying facts of the debate. Their pièce de résistance? A comprehensive database of all voter fraud cases in the United States since the year 2000 – the first nonpartisan archive of its kind.
Their findings prompted headlines like these: “Comprehensive Database of U.S. Voter Fraud Uncovers No Evidence that Photo ID is Needed,” and “Exhaustive Database of Voter Fraud Cases Turns Up Scant Evidence That It Happens.”
The students uncovered 2068 actual fraud cases since the year 2000. Of those cases, 10 arose from in-person voter impersonation – the only voter fraud that a photo ID protects against. Yet since 2000, 37 states have either implemented, or considered, a stringent voter ID law.
(New America/Slate's Map of the Week used this data to plot the instances of fraud and the states that have ID laws.)
Beyond the numbers, the students exposed an unexpected group behind many of the latest voter ID laws: secretaries of state. These officials are in charge of elections in their state, and they’re supposed to be nonpartisan. But Henke discovered that many “are falling in line with their party, [in supporting] what we do or don’t need as far as voting ID.” Two-thirds of secretaries of states are Republicans.
Overwhelmingly, the voter fraud cases they found came from absentee ballots (491), voter registration (400), and human error: Sometimes elderly voters forgot that they used an absentee ballot to vote, and then voted again at on election day. Others voted in the wrong precinct.
So how do you combat the fraud that stems from misinformation? Anthea Watson Strong, an independent consultant who works for the Google Politics and Elections team, and Roger MacDonald, the leader of the Internet Archive TV News Research Service Project, are both working on projects to make finding political information faster and easier.
Strong spoke of Google’s efforts to build online tools that call up essential voting information – like polling place location and directions, and candidate lists - simply by typing in your address. MacDonald’s team has spent the past 16 years archiving websites and books – and the past 11 years recording TV news programs in the U.S. and abroad – for a massive, free, digital database. Their mission: archive all human knowledge. They recently launched the television component, which is unique because, unlike newspapers, the medium had no archive previously.
“Television in general has no pause and rewind button on it,” MacDonald said. “It sweeps over us. And it affects our guts, our heads, but there’s no model for going, ‘hmm. How was that that? What was that?’ In this election context we think it works really well for citizens to understand political issues [and] the migration of issues and statements over time."