The Challenge of Maintaining Election Security and Voting Rights

While election security has been a matter of concern for many years, the increasing use of technology to hold elections and the growing capabilities of third parties to interfere in them has caused citizens and experts to assess whether the United States can adequately protect and ensure legitimate elections. Furthermore, many are concerned that the inevitable adjustments to voting procedures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic could jeopardize election security and unintentionally suppress voting rights.  Below, I will illustrate why election security in the U.S. is at risk and weigh the consequences of measures designed to enhance security.

Russian Interference

That Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is a widely accepted premise in the upper echelons of the United States intelligence agencies.  The CIA, FBI, NSA, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Senate Intelligence Committee, and House Intelligence Committee have all publicly announced that they found clear, conclusive evidence of Russian interference in the election. Their message was loud and clear: Russia and other countries have been and will continue attempting to influence U.S. elections.  Therefore, there is a material need for greater security of our elections in order to protect their sanctity.

Election Security Legislation

In response to the past, present, and future threats to election security, the Senate recently passed an election security bill, the Election Security Act of 2019, to increase spending on both election technology and security for the future. The bill, which was written largely in response to the Russian threat, has three primary functions: enhancing security infrastructure and funding, creating clearer communication procedures between federal and local municipalities and law enforcement, and developing more advanced cybersecurity measures against hacking. Though the effectiveness of this bill has yet to be tested, it is a positive step and it addresses a critical need.

Do other election security measures need to be taken?

In the name of election security, some call for laws requiring photo identification to vote. The number of voter identification laws has greatly increased since the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Indiana voter ID law. Those who advocate for voter ID laws insist that there is voter fraud in U.S. elections, and that these laws are means of preventing such fraud. For instance, after the 2016 Presidential Election, President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that there was widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire and used it to justify voter ID laws. It should be noted that New Hampshire already had voter ID laws in place, and President Trump’s claim has been debunked by a study by the Washington Post.

How common is voter fraud in U.S. elections?

While voter ID laws and the Election Security Act may appear to have similar underlying needs, this is not the case. As opposed to foreign election interference, which has been found by all major U.S. intelligence agencies, voter fraud is not nearly as impactful or widespread. For instance, a study titled “The Truth About Voter Fraud” that was conducted by the Brennan Institute for Justice at New York University found “incident rates” of voter fraud to be around 3 per million voters. However, even that miniscule number of cases overestimates the potential effect of Voter ID laws because they do not address any type of fraud except for in-person voter impersonation, where a voter fraudulently casts a vote as another person at the polling station. 

A study published in the Washington Post by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School discovered only 31 such cases of voter impersonation out of more than a billion votes cast between 2000 and 2014. Simply put, to describe voter fraud as exceedingly rare is a significant understatement.

Effects of Voter ID laws

            The American Civil Liberties Union describes voter ID laws as a “solution in search of a problem” given the extremely limited evidence of voter fraud. However, this statement gives too much credit to voter ID laws by insinuating that they are a solution at all. Even though there is extraordinarily little evidence of voter fraud, there is even less evidence to suggest that voter ID laws do anything to prevent potential voter fraud. In fact, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in February 2019, “ID requirements have no effect on fraud.” Furthermore, after the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against North Carolina’s Voter ID law in 2016, an audit of the 2016 election by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that the law would have prevented one vote out of the roughly 4.8 million votes cast.

            If voter fraud is almost completely inconsequential and voter ID laws do not prevent the miniscule amount of such fraud, then what do these laws actually do? A Harvard Business School study declared that “Voter ID Laws Don’t Work (But they don’t hurt anything either)” because there is no immediate voter turnout decrease. There are several problems with this theory, however. First of all, a defense of a law, which does not at all accomplish what it was written to do, on the grounds that it does not actively worsen the situation it was supposed to solve, is patently absurd. Secondly, it is not exactly true that voter ID laws have no effect on voter turnout, but rather that these effects are masked by other effects in the short term. A study by Duke University discovered that “strong emotional reactions to the public debate about these laws may mobilize Democrats, counterbalancing the disenfranchising effect.” Thirdly, these laws do disenfranchise specific groups of people, specifically minorities. A study conducted by Dr. Vanessa M. Perez, an adjunct Lecturer at Johns Hopkins and Senior Public Policy Analyst at Project Vote, observed that while only eight percent of Whites had neither a driver’s license or passport, 27 percent of Blacks and 17 percent of Hispanics had neither document. The study also documented that within each race, the largest percentage of people without a government photo ID was those with less than $25,000 in annual household income. Additionally, there exists even more definitive proof that voter ID laws disenfranchise minorities. A study by professors at University of California, San Diego and Bucknell University published in the University of Chicago Journal of Politics proved that “strict identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of racial and ethnic minorities in primaries and general elections” by “using validated voting data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for several recent elections.”

To conclude, no evidence suggests that voter ID laws succeed in deterring the small amount of election fraud that occurs, and they instead disenfranchise many minority and low-income individuals. In these unprecedented times, the United States must remain committed to upholding both election security and voting rights. Any plan that attempts to accomplish one at the expense of the other should be carefully examined.

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