Op - Ed, Opinion

Condos is right to defy Trump on voter info

By Jon Margolis

Praising elected officials ought not to be a common practice. They tend to do an adequate job of that themselves, rarely missing an opportunity to tell the world how wonderful they are.

There are times, though, when an elected official deserves the approval of his constituents. Right now, Secretary of State Jim Condos is that official.

Granted, a Vermont politician takes no great risk defying the Trump administration, as Condos is doing over a request that he provide voter information to a federal commission. He’s not even alone. At last count, election officials in 44 states, Democrats and Republicans both, have told the Election Integrity Commission that they would withhold at least some of the information, because complying might violate state privacy laws.

But Condos was one of the first (he even got on National Public Radio the other day), and though he initially said he was “bound by law” to turn over some of the information, he quickly readjusted, announcing that he would first ask the attorney general (Condos is not a lawyer) what his options were.

Was this turnabout in response to pressure? Sure. But elected officials should respond to informed pressure. Stubbornness in office is rarely a virtue.

Unlike officials in some other states, Condos made it clear from the outset that his objections were not just technical. The very premise of the commission — “that there is widespread voter fraud” — was the real fraud, Condos said, part of “a systematic national effort of voter suppression and intimidation.”

Let’s not overpraise Condos. There’s no point in giving him what the late, great philosopher Whitey Bimstein called “a swelled head.” Besides, Condos was, if anything, too restrained in his condemnation of the commission.

This is a peculiar controversy. It thrives only thanks to a peculiar amalgamation of events and conditions: vicious partisanship, indifference to truth, and what someone called “the journalism of opinions-over-the-shape-of-the-earth-differ,” which assumes that accurately quoting both the flat-earth and round-earth advocates is sufficient.

Hence the creation of a dispute over whether non-citizens or other ineligible voters are showing up at the polls pretending to be somebody else when: (a) there is no evidence that this occurs to any meaningful extent; and (b) a moment’s thought would reveal that doing such a thing would be so pointless and so dangerous that almost no one would do it.

Oh, some people do. In a country of 325 million people, a few of them will do any fool thing. Here and there a guy will vote in the wrong town or precinct to vote for (or against) his brother-in-law. This is apparently what the conservative columnist Ann Coulter did in Florida in 2005 (for a friend, not a brother-in-law), avoiding prosecution because by the time her mistake (or misdeed) was discovered, the statute of limitations had expired.

But because doing this is so stupid, it is extremely rare. It is stupid not only because one is likely to get caught and serve up to five years in prison, but also because one vote makes no difference, and most people understand that it makes no difference.

That explains why all the actual data by actual scholars show that this kind of voter fraud barely exists. One compilation of all general and primary elections from 2000 through 2014, in which more than 1 billion ballots were cast, found 31 alleged (that’s alleged, not proven) incidents of someone pretending to be someone else at the polls.

That’s effectively zero.

And yet, some partisans glom onto any incident, however irrelevant, to try to show that voter impersonation exists. Their latest is the news that someone in Virginia recently pleaded guilty to submitting 18 fake registration forms, some of them in the names of dead people, to his local election agency.

But this was registration fraud, not voter fraud. None of those people dead or alive actually voted. And the guy who tried to register them got caught. He’s going to jail. The system worked.

Deliberately or otherwise, this whole manufactured controversy over voter impersonation fraud is misdirection. There is some election fraud in the country. Most of it involves absentee ballots. As more votes are cast and tabulated by computer, there is a danger that the systems could be hacked and the results perverted by a political organization, a criminal organization, or … Russia?

Dangers ignored by the federal government as it pursues the non-danger of impersonation at the polls, a convenient pursuit because it appeals to the common delusion among proper, respectable people that wickedness is practiced only by “those other folks down there.” Note that rarely if ever does anyone allege that impersonators showed up at an affluent suburban polling place, only in the inner cities or the rural South and Southwest.

Nor is this presumption solely racial or ethnic. It is part of the nation’s political mythology that Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago somehow stole the 1960 presidential election for John F. Kennedy.

Actual evidence in support of this mythology is all but nonexistent. But Daley and his gritty, big-city “machine” (that’s a political organization you don’t like) — mostly white but clearly downscale — also qualify as “those other folks down there,” not so proper and respectable.

But the real political corruption these days is legal and is led by the proper and respectable, who know better than to try to pay people to impersonate legal voters. Instead they raise campaign contributions and hire lobbyists. That’s both more effective and cheaper. Then they can distract everyone’s attention by crying wolf about a threat which does not exist.

It’s just possible that Jim Condos understands this. Good for him.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for VTDigger.

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