Ohio voter purge unconstitutional: Do voter ID laws matter in the 2016 race?

Ohio voter purge declared unconstitutional. Colorado finds cases of voter fraud. How significant are concerns about voter fraud? 

Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters/File
In this file photo, Ohio voters cast their votes at the polls for early voting in the 2012 U.S. presidential election in Medina, Ohio, on Oct. 26, 2012.

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Ohio's voter "purge," a measure that removed thousands of inactive voters from the rolls in a controversial effort to curb voter fraud and keep registration up to date, was unconstitutional.

The battle over voting rules is one of the many debates about voter fraud taking place around the United States as an increasingly tight presidential election looms on the horizon. The issue has sharply divided the country along political party lines in recent years.

Republican worries about fraud have spurred efforts, like the one in Ohio, that make it more difficult for perpetrators to take on the name of inactive or dead voters to fraudulently place multiple votes in an election. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to see these rules as an attempt to suppress minority votes.

"As conversations continue to occur over how best to expand the base of the Republican Party, such stances in defense of voter identification laws do not help in their efforts," Donathan Brown, associate professor and chair of the Diversity Scholars Program at Ithaca College, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "With Republican candidates trying to reach African-American, Latino, and college-aged voters, who, in turn, are some of the groups most impacted by these laws, this partisan stance on the matter does not help with voter outreach."

"To argue that a tight presidential election of this nature possesses the ingredients to trigger voter fraud is simply without merit and leads us down a dangerous slippery slope." Dr. Brown adds.

The Ohio rule removed any voter from the rolls that had not voted in six years. According to ABC, many of these inactive voters on the were from low-income neighborhoods that tended to vote Democrat. 

Whitney Ross Manzo, assistant professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., says the root of the problem with the Ohio rule is the short six-year time limit. Since many voters only turn out to vote for president every four years, missing just one election could disqualify them during the upcoming election.

"The rule sounds benign – you need to vote at least once every six years – but certain segments of the population (the poor, elderly, and minority voters) are disproportionately affected by the rule, which is why it was just deemed unconstitutional," Dr. Manzo tells the Monitor in an email.

The Ohio ruling joins the recent Supreme Court strike down of North Carolina's voter ID laws. As the Monitor recently reported, the court found that poor and minority voters are less likely to have the kinds of ID required by the law, leading many critics to claim that the law oppressed African-Americans in the southern state. 

Republicans, on the other hand, cite stories of voter fraud like the one recently brought to light in Colorado. An investigation by local reporters revealed a number of cases of dead voters' names being used in that state to cast illegal ballots. In one instance, records showed that a woman who died in 2009 had ballots cast in her name during elections in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

"I was shocked and surprised at this," El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman told CBS4 in Denver. "This cannot happen. We cannot have this here or anyplace in our country."

In 2002, the race for Colorado's 7th Congressional District was decided by a mere 121 votes, a thin margin theoretically vulnerable to a few fraudulent votes. Brown at Ithaca College, however, maintains that the proportion of fraudulent votes is still too small to have a realistic impact in almost all cases.

"In this recent story, the data would indicate that [fradulent voting] represents far less than 0.01% of votes cast, assuming of course, that the investigation holds, and that all 78 voters deceased voters remained on the roll," says Brown. "I do not think this weakens any case set forth by Democrats or strengthens any case by Republicans, but instead should bring both parties together to discuss process and procedures regrading voter rolls."

Manzo at Meredith College also points out that most instances of voter fraud come from absentee ballots. Even if a few bad votes trickle through, she says that absentee ballots could never be eliminated, since they provide a means "for the elderly, handicapped, and for our soldiers overseas" to have their voices heard.

"I would argue voter fraud isn't that big of a problem in the scheme of elections in the US, and attempts to curb voter fraud actually cause bigger problems," says Manzo. "Restrictive voting laws are solutions in search of a problem."

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