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.

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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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