During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on voting rights in the wake of the 2012 election, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz said a “lack of confidence in our elections is one of the reasons people don’t vote,” before citing voter fraud as the primary source of that lack of confidence and touting voter ID laws. “Anyone who says that voter fraud does not exist should look at the numbers that have been produced in a few short months,” he said. Responding to similar testimony from Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) probed senators on what exactly those numbers are:
DURBIN: If you believe, and we all do, that voter fraud is a serious, if not a crime … I would like for both of you to give me the evidence in Iowa and Arizona of convictions for voter fraud that have led to your changes in the law.
SCHULTZ: I think that’s a great question and I think it’s a very difficult question in some ways because not until now have we had resources to even go after this.
DURBIN: I beg your pardon.
SCHULTZ: Not until recently have we as a Secretary of State’s office had resources dedicated towards an investigator to go and do investigations into these crimes.
DURBIN: So excuse me sir. You’re saying that the law was changed in Iowa even before the investigation began?
SCHULTZ: Well let me back up. The law hasn’t been changed in Iowa. Let me address some of your concerns that you say in your opening statement. Iowa has 40 days of early voting. Our polls are open from 7–9 on Election Day. We do everything we can to encourage people to go vote. The question is then, when you have noncitizens who are registered to vote and voting, you have potential people double voting, you have absentee ballot fraud.
DURBIN: Do you have evidence of noncitizens voting in Iowa?
SCHULTZ: Yes, since August 2012, six people have been arrested.
DURBIN: Six. How many have voted since 2012?
SCHULTZ: Well it’s a difficult question because we had identified 3,582 noncitizens who were registered to vote but we weren’t sure if they were still noncitizens.
DURBIN: I’m guessing that millions have voted?
SCHULTZ: 1.6 million.
DURBIN: 1.6 million and there are six cases.
Durbin then followed a similar of questioning with Bennett, who said Arizona had prosecuted 15 cases in the last 18 months out of an estimated 2.3 million voters. Although Durbin asked for numbers of those convicted, the secretaries instead provided the numbers arrested and prosecuted. These miniscule numbers are consistent with figures nationwide. As the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund’s Nina Perales explained during the hearing, most states have reported prosecutions of less than 20 individuals, eclipsing the numbers of people deterred from voting by purge letters informing legitimately registered citizens that they are not eligible to vote.
Schultz was right when he said that Iowa hasn’t yet passed a law. A voter ID bill that passed the House in 2011 never became law. But the state did institute an aggressive purge effort by comparing the voter rolls to driver’s license data — an effort Perales pointed out is grossly misleading:
Secretary Schultz … said he had identified 3,500 noncitizens using the driver’s license rolls. He did not. He identified 3,500 people who were noncitizens at the time that they obtained their driver’s licenses. And we know that since that time and before they registered to vote, the overwhelming majority and perhaps all of them have become naturalized citizens. So at this point, anyone who undertakes to accuse people of non-citizenship based on driver’s licenses should be on notice that this is not correct and should not be done. It’s fundamentally unfair.
Voter fraud efforts like this one nonetheless fueled voter suppression laws and purges around the country this election season, though many of the worst attempts were blocked by courts. The real challenge will come when the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in February.