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“Voter Fraud Agenda,” Indeed

Last week, John Fund wrote about the demise of a recent Wisconsin elections bill. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Fund found a lot to dislike in the legislation. The curious thing is that among his targets was a new cause one would think he’d be championing…

  • Justin Levitt
April 26, 2010

Late last week, John Fund wrote about the demise of a recent Wisconsin elections bill. It was a broad piece of legislation, big enough for virtually anyone to find something to like and something to dislike. Mr. Fund found far more in the latter category. The curious thing is that among his targets was a new cause one would think he’d be championing.

To be sure, much of the thrust of the piece was familiar, including points where we share common ground. For example, as Mr. Fund says, “coercion and chicanery are made much easier by the excessive use of absentee ballots.” No argument there.

The consistently puzzling thing is where this conclusion leads. From critiquing the fraud that absentee ballots may foster, Mr. Fund repeats his support for requiring strict voter ID at the polls. Which, of course, does nothing to address the absentee problem he’s just mentioned.

The other “real evidence” on which Mr. Fund rests his drumbeat for ID makes a similarly unsupported leap. He cites an admittedly problematic 2004 Milwaukee election, with more votes cast than the number of recorded voters; absentee ballots from non-Milwaukee addresses; and voting by ineligible persons with convictions. He also claims that there were improper votes by college students and “possibly” by homeless voters, though his source is a controversial report by a unit of the local police force, disavowed by its chief, and impeccable on the facts but unfortunately hasty in its assessment of law and policy. The report is deeply skeptical about these student and homeless votes not because the facts show substantial fraud, but because the investigators either didn’t like or didn’t understand the governing legal residency standards.

But for purposes of argument, let’s throw all these allegations in the mix, legit or not. And let’s stipulate that the assertions are troublesome. Even with the extra padding, none of this “real evidence” shows a problem that restrictive ID can fix. Go through Mr. Fund’s list of problems again. Does asking John Smith to show a card saying that he’s John Smith solve even one? Not one bit.

If Mr. Fund were a doctor, he’d be prescribing the same magic tonic no matter what your actual symptoms were. Seasonal allergies? Try Fund’s Miracle ID Elixir. Chest pains? Try Fund’s Miracle ID Elixir. Broken ankle? Try Fund’s Miracle ID Elixir.

Even if the ID tonic addressed the underlying symptoms that Mr. Fund cites, its benefits would amount to only half the conversation. If Fund’s Miracle ID Elixir cured your head cold but caused pneumonia, you’d keep the bottle closed. That’s why, in any policy assessment, you need to assess both benefits and costs. In pressing strict ID rules, Mr. Fund mentions only purported benefits. In lambasting election-day registration, he mentions only purported costs. Even once we straighten out the funny math, Mr. Fund is looking at only half of the ledger.

And then the Op-Ed’s disconnect gets truly odd. Though he shifts focus from state to national legislation, it seems that Mr. Fund then attacks the policy portion of the Wisconsin bill that he should, in theory, like best — if he believes what he wrote sentences before.

I’m referring here to the provisions of the bill that would upgrade Wisconsin’s voter registration system, drawing data from reliable sources to keep the rolls complete and up to date. It’s the portion I praised last week, though not without reservations, including a concern that the bill was limited to motor vehicle records.

Since Mr. Fund likes ID rules, and dislikes election-day chaos and duplicate forms, not to mention “infamous registration scandals,” this part of the Wisconsin bill should have gotten two enormous thumbs up. The bill would have taken reliable data from the same people who issue the driver’s licenses Mr. Fund loves. After confirming their eligibility, the citizens in this data stream would have their voter records created or refreshed, which shifts the registration season from the last-minute frenzy Mr. Fund deplores. The more citizens who are registered or updated through data transfer from reliable sources, the fewer paper forms factor in, decreasing the likelihood of the registration scandals we all agree are harmful.

There would be costs, of course, largely in data processing time and energy. But the status quo costs much more. And other states’ experiences with components of modernized voter rolls show that the upgrades more than pay for themselves.

So on the substance of the matter, I can’t understand why Mr. Fund doesn’t like the concept. I hope that I’ve misread his critique, and that his attack on Senator Schumer’s idea occupied the space where he would have praised Wisconsin’s version of the same. Unusual though it may seem, on the virtues of modernization, we should actually agree.