An increasing number of states have passed laws requiring voter ID at the polls. When a Republican legislator in Pennsylvania recently said that their ID law would enable Mitt Romney to win the state, Democrats pounced, insisting that the remark proved that Republicans were using fears of "vote fraud" — which Democrats insist is non-existent — to engage in "voter intimidation," a blanket term that covers anything that impacts the ability to vote.
This stirs a memory.
After the 2000 election, I participated in a hearing on this issue. We had witnesses who claimed that voter intimidation in Florida had given the state to Bush, with few specifics, and we had witnesses who said that vote fraud had taken place, with lots of specifics. The most interesting episode came from St. Louis.
Around noon on election day there, Democratic lawyers went into a Missouri state court claiming voter intimidation was happening; in certain precincts, lines were so long that people were walking away without voting. The lawyers filed a petition in the name of Robert Odum, a St. Louis resident who claimed to be fearful about his ability to vote, asking that polls be kept open an extra hour — till 9:00 p.m. "Mr. Odum is present and willing to testify," said the lawyers, but the judge replied, "That won't be necessary," and immediately granted the request. The proceeding was over in a matter of minutes.
It was a sham. The main reason Odum would have had trouble voting was that he was dead. Immediately followed the judge's ruling, a pre-recorded phone message from Rev. Jesse Jackson rolled through African-American neighborhoods, saying that the polls would be open for an extra hour. Unspoken was the fact that this extra hour provided an opportunity for significant vote fraud to take place. Democrats in the inner city, where there were few Republican poll watchers to monitor them, were planning to gather up the names of those who had not voted during regular hours and then cast phantom votes in those names for Gore.
When the Republicans finally found out about the state judge's order, they rushed to federal court and got the state action overturned, at just the last moment. Polls were actually closed sometime around 8:15 p.m.
After the election, when an investigation into this incident discovered that plaintiff Odum was dead, his son, also named Robert, came forward to say that use of his father's name had been merely a typographical error (they had different middle initials). He said, "I'm the one who was afraid that I wouldn't get to vote." Big mistake — records showed he had already voted before the suit was filed. He worked for the Congressman in whose district most of the pre-recorded calls had been made and obviously was the one who supplied his father's name for the lawsuit. The press had fun with that one, but his Congressional boss was indignant about the entire investigation and insisted that it was just another example of Republican voter intimidation. (Most of the state officials whom he berated were Democrats.)
After that hearing, the push for voter ID laws began in earnest. Challenges to them put the matter before the Supreme Court, which upheld the concept 6-3, with Justice Paul Stevens, the court's leading liberal, joining the five conservatives. Noting that unusual lineup, I asked Chief Justice Roberts how the conservatives had convinced Stevens to vote with them. He replied, "We didn't have to. He's from Chicago — he understands."
Producing an ID can be a minor inconvenience, but committing vote fraud can change an election. Just ask Justice Stevens.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.