This story is part of a series examining the state of Wisconsin’s democracy in an era of gerrymandering, secret campaign money, restrictive voting laws and legislative maneuvers that weaken the power of regular citizens to influence government.
How you can help
Have you been harmed by a lack of democracy?
Send ideas for coverage to firstname.lastname@example.org, or WCIJ, 5006 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, Wis., 53706.
Voter impersonation — the reason voter ID laws were passed in the first place — has largely been debunked as a pervasive problem in U.S. elections, according to a summary of investigations and studies compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice. The law and policy institute out of New York University Law School focuses on campaign finance reform, mass incarceration and voting rights.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited a Brennan Center study when speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in March.
“The likelihood for a person to cast a fraudulent ballot is as likely as a person to get struck by lightning,” said Holder, who now serves as the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is pushing states to adopt nonpartisan processes for redrawing electoral districts.
“(Republicans) just can’t come up with the statistics that show that you have this problem of casting fraudulent ballots,” Holder said. “It’s clear that they are trying to rig the system. The president (Donald Trump) talked about during the campaign how the system was rigged. Well, I’m here to tell you, the biggest rigged system in this country is gerrymandering and voter ID laws.”
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump disbanded his voter fraud commission without making any findings. One of the commission members, Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s Democratic secretary of state, told NPR in August that the group never found evidence of Trump claims that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election. He called voter fraud a “phantom menace.”
Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, finds that voter ID laws may be a “deliberate plan” to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, particularly Democrats, through incurring costs on voting, whether it be time or financial.
“It’s also the reason why you have so many lies, frankly, about voter fraud,” Klaas said. “Every single study on voter fraud has found that its a miniscule problem and almost always has non-nefarious intent.”
Before filing its 2015 federal lawsuit, One Wisconsin Institute filed open-records requests for all complaints of voter fraud from “every single legislator” who claimed to have received them, according to program director Analiese Eicher.
Of the 15 who had records, they consisted of unverified constituent complaints, news articles about the less than two dozen reported cases in Wisconsin since 2004 and a “widely discredited” anonymous report on alleged fraud in Milwaukee, the group said.
Fifty lawmakers said they had no responsive records. Eicher said lawmakers “had to swear under oath in our lawsuit that voter fraud didn’t exist — which was fun watching that happen.”
Nevertheless, the myth of widespread voter fraud persists, especially among Republicans, according to the June PRRI/The Atlantic survey funded by the Joyce Foundation, which also supports the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s coverage of democracy issues. It found 52 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats believe a major problem with U.S. elections is “people casting votes who are not eligible to vote.”