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Some pretty simple math

July 26, 2012

For those just stumbling for the first time into the issue of voter ID laws like the one that has recently been passed in Pennsylvania—and is now being challenged by the ACLU—the matter can be a bit confusing. Both sides are wrapping themselves up in the flag to defend their side of the argument. One side says it is protecting democracy by preventing fraud, making sure that the will of legitimate voters is not being overridden by those who have no right to vote, or are voting twice. The other side says it is protecting democracy by making sure no legitimate voter is denied the right to vote. Surely, both these are laudable goals, so you can’t settle the argument by saying that one or the other is wrong.

What you can do is do the math and see which side is more costly. Just how many phony votes are being created by fraud, versus how many legitimate voters are being deprived of a vote by voter ID laws?

The answer is: an infinitesimally small number. According to a study done by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a rigorous examination of a controversial 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State, in which allegations of fraud abounded, showed that voter fraud occurred .0009% of the time. That’s nine votes out of every million cast. It wrote, “The similarly closely analyzed 2004 election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of .00004% [four in 10 million.] National Weather Service data shows that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.”

A Washington Post article reports that, from 2002 to 2005, only five people were convicted for voting multiple times. In that same period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for improper voting. And according to Ari Berman of Salon, in Pennsylvania there were only 11 instances of reported voter fraud between 2000 and 2008—eight of which were attempted by the same person.