Bill Clinton Is Right to Talk About Voter Fraud and Race

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A National Review writer attacks the former president for his convention-night speech -- showing why Republicans need to reevaluate how they think about the right to vote.

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As I wrote just yesterday, there are many good reasons this election season to have a serious national debate about voting rights and voter fraud. There are many reasons to talk about how the accuracy of our voting and elections may be improved without discriminating against millions of registered American voters.

But no such debate is ever going to stem from misguided pieces like this one, offered up Wednesday morning by John Fund at National Review Online. Let me try to deconstruct it point by point, and then you can decide for yourself whether Americans would be better off, or worse, indulging in the arguments Fund offers.

First, the title of the piece, "Bill Clinton Pulls the Race Card," is notable because it comes just one week after eight federal judges struck down five separate Republican voting and election measures in Texas, Florida, and Ohio. In Texas v. Holder, a three-judge panel struck down Texas's new voter registration law for its discriminatory effect on minority rights under the Voting Rights Act. In South Carolina v. Holder, another panel of federal judges were baffled last week by the testimony of state officials trying to defend their own dubious law. No federal judge last week -- not one -- sided with Republicans in these cases.

Now, you could argue that Republican lawmakers in these states "pulled the race card" when they enacted their voter ID legislation over bipartisan, biracial alternatives. You could argue that S.C. State Rep Alan Clemmons pulled the race card when he indulged the bigotry of one of his constituents. You could even argue that the federal courts "pulled the race card" when they struck down the Texas measures as discriminatory. But blasting Bill Clinton for "pulling the race card" on voting rights, after all these cases have come to court, is like blasting the guy who comes late to dinner for eating all the hors d'oeuvres.

The title of Fund's piece refers to the brief statement Clinton made last night, a statement followed by a rousing ovation, during the waning moments of his nomination speech for Barack Obama. Here's is Fund's first paragraph:

In his speech last night, Bill Clinton shamelessly played the race card in an attack on voter-ID laws. He veered from a discussion of the economy to say "If you want every American to vote and you think it's wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters, you should support Barack Obama."

Clinton here was referring to the dozens of state laws, enacted by Republicans since 2010, which seek, in the name of preventing voter fraud, to require registered voters to obtain new state ID cards. For some voters, the burden of obtaining these new identification cards is minor. For many, however, the burden of obtaining these cards is legally significant. Anyone who has read the opinion in Texas v. Holder, or who has read the testimony in South Carolina v. Holder, or who has followed the Pennsylvania litigation, or who is paying attention in Ohio, understands what the enforcement of these laws would mean to dispossessed voters.

Fund continues:

His timing in attacking efforts to combat voter fraud couldn't have come at a more ironic time. Just yesterday, a Democratic state legislator in Clinton's native Arkansas pled guilty along with his father, a West Memphis police officer, and a West Memphis city councilman to a conspiracy to commit voter fraud.

Democratic representative Hudson Hallum was part of a conspiracy to bribe voters in three separate elections in 2011.

"In a nation in which every person's vote matters, protecting the integrity of the electoral process from those who seek to win office by cheating the system is critical," assistant U.S. attorney Jane Duke said in a statement released by her office. Attempts to steal votes "have the devastating effect of eroding public confidence in elected officials and disenfranchising voters."

Prosecutors say that two campaign workers for Hallum assisted voters in filling out absentee ballots and were guilty of "actually completing absentee ballots in some instances without regard to the voter's actual candidate choice." In some cases, voters were given money in exchange for surrendering control of their ballots. Ballots for Hudson's opponent were also destroyed.

At one point, Hallum told Philip Wayne Carter, the city councilman, that "We need to use that black limo and buy a couple cases of some cheap vodka and whiskey to get people to vote."

See what's just happened? Fund is using an example of one kind of voter fraud to undercut Clinton's point about the need to protect voting rights. But, as Fund surely knows from his research on the topic, it's a case of apples and oranges. The ID laws that Fund is defending, and which Clinton criticized, aren't designed to stop vote-buying cases -- and they won't. Don't take my word for it. Take the word of S.C. State Sen. George "Chip" Campsen III, a Republican who testified last month at the federal trial over his own state's voter ID law. Here's the Associated Press account of Sen. Campsen's testimony:

During morning testimony, state Sen. George "Chip" Campsen III cited examples of fraud that he took into consideration while drafting early versions of South Carolina's law. These included vote buying, voter rolls indicating a woman who showed up at the polls had already voted, and press reports of voters being registered in both South Carolina and North Carolina.

But under questioning from Justice Department attorney Anna Baldwin, Campsen, a Republican, said the examples he gave did not involve the type of fraud that requiring photo identification would address.

"None of the examples you gave in your testimony involved incidents of impersonation?" Baldwin asked.

"Correct," Campsen answered. He also said he could not find cases of voter impersonation in South Carolina, but added that the state lacks the tools to root them out.

Next, Fund asserts:

Clinton has been similarly sloppy in his attacks in the past. 2008, (sic) he played the race card by comparing Barack Obama's level of support in South Carolina to that of race-agitator Jesse Jackson -- and the resultant bad publicity imploded his wife's primary chances in that largely minority state.

Then last year, he told a group of young Democrats that "There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the other Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today."

Clinton was speaking of laws to impose voter-ID requirements in several states that had previously allowed anyone to vote without proving they were who they said they were. The corrupt group ACORN showed just how easy it is to manipulate the system before it collapsed in a maelstrom of scandal. Their widespread voter-registration fraud in recent years drew national attention to the problem and criminal actions.

I've been doing this a long time, and I have yet to come across a state which allows anyone to vote "without proving they were who they said they were." The very idea is "ridiculous," the Brennan Center's Larry Norden told me Thursday. ACORN was a scandal about voter registration, not voter identification, which means we have more apples and oranges. I get that Fund and company believe that in-person voting fraud is real and rampant. But where is the proof? Texas sued the Justice Department but never proved the existence of in-person voter fraud. Neither did South Carolina. Or Pennsylvania.

Shouldn't the evidence come before the conclusion? Isn't that how science works? In courts of law, where evidence matters, no state has come forward and proven the assertions Fund makes in his piece (including the one about "illegal aliens" voting) about voter ID laws. Again, you don't have to take my word for it. Just read the transcripts and the rulings. Even in the one recent voter ID case which went the GOP's way -- the ruling last month in Applewhite v. Pennsylvania, now on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court -- the trial judge noted that the parties had stipulated the following:

There have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties have no direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states...

The parties are not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania and do not have direct personal knowledge of in person voter fraud elsewhere.

Respondents will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania or elsewhere...

Respondents will not offer any evidence or argument that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the Photo ID law.

Indeed, the whole disheartening point of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Crawford v. Marion County, the 2008 ruling which permits voter-ID laws, is that state officials don't automatically need to prove voter fraud in order to proclaim it is reasonable to want to prevent it. There needs only to be the threat of a voter-fraud problem to legitimize the solution. But that's a legal argument. The political argument, it seems to me, requires clear and convincing evidence of in-person voter fraud before a state can burden poor voters who cannot afford a car, or the elderly or infirm who cannot travel, or students, with the new state-ID requirement.

Fund continues:

In a new book, Hans von Spakovsky and I point out that voter-ID laws make it harder for a person to vote at multiple locations and block illegal aliens from voting. Combined with a cleanup of voter-registration laws and absentee-ballot security, such laws can dramatically increase voter confidence in our elections.

The week before Clinton's 2011 attack on voter ID, Democrats in Rhode Island's legislature approved a photo-ID law to combat what African-American state senator Harold Metts, the bill's co-sponsor, called "a serious and ongoing pattern of voter fraud in this state." The bill was sponsored in the state house by Gideon Fox, that body's first African-American speaker.

Clinton's attacks on voter-ID laws, along with those of Attorney General Eric Holder, ignore the fact that a recent Washington Post poll found that 74 percent of Americans favor having people show an ID when they vote, including 65 percent of African Americans and 64 percent of Hispanics. Most voters believe showing ID -- a necessity in our daily lives -- is common sense. For those few who lack an ID, getting them a free one is doing them a favor and helping them enter the mainstream of American life.

Must be some book. After all, who could ever be against "increase[d] voter confidence in our elections"? But here Fund is pretending that all voter-ID laws are alike, and therefore worthy, and that the fact that some Democrats have supported some measures in the past means no Democrat should complain today about their discriminatory effect. The truth is that Texas's lawmakers rejected a reasonable alternative to the voter-ID law which was just struck down. Those lawmakers could have made it easier for minority citizens, for registered voters, for the poor and infirm, to get the required new IDs. Those lawmakers chose not to.

And what did the federal courts say about that last week? "A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote. The same is true when a law imposes an illicit fee for the privilege of casting a ballot ..." Bill Clinton didn't write those words. Eric Holder didn't write those words. Three judges, including an appointee of George W. Bush, wrote those words. Meanwhile, the same thing happened in the state legislature in South Carolina, too. Again, don't take my word for it. Take the word of yet another Republican lawmaker testifying under oath. From NPR News:

Another witness Tuesday was South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Republican, who was a leader in the state Senate at the time the voter ID law was passed. He said he and several other senators pushed for a broader bill that would have allowed voters to show ID from their government jobs at the polls and would also have allowed early voting. Those provisions were struck from the bill in the House.

McConnell said the "political heat was on" from Tea Party and Republican Party leaders to pass the more restrictive measures. "I thought our bill was a superior bill," he said of the less restrictive measure, adding that it had bipartisan and biracial support an implying it would have faced much less opposition from the Justice Department." Who was to complain?" he asked.

There is ample room for bipartisan work here -- the Justice Department, for example, just pre-cleared Virginia's new voter-identification law. No one should pretend otherwise. "Instead of passing costly laws that are just a solution in search of problem," Eric Marshall, of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me Thursday, "elected officials should come together in a bipartisan fashion to pass reforms that tackle the real problems in our election system like our cumbersome and antiquated voter registration system. Our current voter registration system is inefficient, costing taxpayers millions of dollars..."

Nor should Fund pretend that an attorney general should follow poll results when evaluating the legitimacy of voting laws that are discriminatory in their intent or effect. If the courts and Congress followed the poll results in the 1960s, we wouldn't have a Voting Rights Act today. Of course Americans believe they should show ID before they have to vote. They already do so -- in every state and anywhere else Americans are allowed to cast a ballot. Texas's new law seeks to ban from the list of acceptable identification photo IDs from students, out-of-state driver's licenses, and state-employee-identification cards. Think the poll numbers would be different if the pollsters got more specific?

Finally, from Fund:

But critics such as Bill Clinton and Eric Holder prefer to drum up racial fears and tensions with constant references to Jim Crow and poll taxes. Their criticism is not only unwarranted. It is reckless and irresponsible.

Drum up racial fears and tensions. Here, I suppose, you have a choice between two Johns. You can believe John Fund when it comes to who is drumming up racial fears and tensions, or you can believe Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who had his skull cracked open in 1965 fighting for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge between Selma and Montgomery. Last month, Rep. Lewis told me:

It is not outlandish to conclude that these new laws are based on the simple objective of blocking minorities from casting a vote that will determine the outcome of elections. Some appointed and elected officials have stated these aims and have made it very clear that they are working to disenfranchise minority voters in this election. I truly believe there is a deliberate and systematic attempt to keep people from participating because some fear the results of the election would be very different than they desire if they allow full, free, unfettered participation, even though those efforts may violate voting rights law and demonstrate blatant disregard for the responsibilities of state and local elections officials.

When it comes to voting rights, and which side is drumming "up racial fears and tensions" this election year, I chose to believe Rep. Lewis -- and also what I have read with my own eyes of the court transcripts and judicial rulings. The arguments against Fund are all there, in one form or another, under oath, from the mouths of one Republican after another, transposed onto the record by one judge after another. That's the real story about the fight over voting rights this election year -- the vast gulf between the evidence that is coming out in court and the nonsense that is coming out elsewhere.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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