The Billings Outpost

Debating the right to vote vs. voting right

Millions of words go online and into print about presidential races, but it can be hard for down-ballot candidates to get noticed. They need an angle.

Montana’s race for secretary of state doesn’t involve much partisan politics. The secretary handles elections, administers rules, manages records and assists with some business services, such as filing annual reports. Not much there to inflame the masses.

So even as well known a candidate as Brad Johnson has to stretch for an issue that carries a partisan tinge. And he has found one: An agenda of proposals to “preserve and enhance the future integrity of Montana’s elections.”

Mr. Johnson became secretary of state in 2005 but lost the 2008 election by 1.1 percentage points to Linda McCulloch, against whom he now seeks a rematch. She is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, but he has three Republican opponents: Scott Aspenlieder, Patty Lovaas and Drew Turiano. Roger Roots is running as a Libertarian.

Mr. Johnson blames his 2008 loss on three factors: a broad Democratic sweep, a Constitution Party candidate who drew off some 12,000 conservative voters and the involvement of George Soros in the Montana race. Mr. Soros was a contributor to the Secretary of State Project, which donated to targeted secretary of state races around the country, including Montana’s.

Mr. Johnson has a four-part proposal for the Legislature:

• Provide increased authority for the secretary of state to work with the attorney general to investigate and prosecute election fraud.

• Modernize the signature verification process used for mail-in ballots and the initiative process.

• Require voters to show photo identification when they vote.

• Eliminate same-day voter registration.

Moves to tighten voting requirements have been swirling in Republican circles for a couple of election cycles. Critics, by which I mean Democrats, say this is a cure in search of an ailment. The real motive, they charge, is to make it harder for Democratic-leaning low-income and transient people to vote.

Critics are right that there is scant evidence of significant election fraud. ACORN workers, for example, got in trouble for registering voters who didn’t exist or whose names were pulled randomly out of phone books. The goal of the workers wasn’t to fix elections; it was to scam ACORN, which was paying workers by the voter.

But almost nobody, as far as we can tell, took advantage of those fake registrations to cast illegal votes. Why not? As blogger Kevin Drum has pointed out, there is little incentive for individual voters to cheat. The risk is fairly high, the penalties for getting caught can be severe, and the chances of actually swinging an election are quite low.

For voter fraud to be really effective, you have to have a political machine to install corrupt election judges, monkey with votes after they are cast, or line up enough fake voters in crucial precincts to change results. Or you have to run the whole country, the way it’s done in Iran.

None of that is likely to be prevented by hassling voters who may have forgotten to bring an ID to the polling place. Mr. Johnson acknowledged in an interview here last week that evidence for widespread election fraud is lacking, but that doesn’t deter him.

“I don’t think we should wait for a crisis,” he said. The charge that Republican enthusiasm for tighter voting rules is aimed at limiting minority turnout is “absolute nonsense,” he said.

Allowing everybody to vote who’s entitled to vote is important, he said, but it’s just as important to ensure that legal votes aren’t offset by fraudulent ones. Maybe, but this could be closer to the reasoning we use in criminal cases: Better to allow a few fraudulent voters than to deprive anybody of their fundamental right to vote.

I’m old enough to remember the poll tax, which was banned nationwide by constitutional amendment in 1964, so I have some sympathy for critics of the push for tighter voting requirements. A voting measure doesn’t have to be racist on its face to have racist results.

But I also found myself agreeing more than I expected with Mr. Johnson. Same-day voting registration probably is pushing things too far. It at least opens the possibility of making cheating easier.

Like me, Mr. Johnson would rather cast a ballot in person than by mail, and he opposes allowing statewide elections to be decided exclusively by mail-in ballots. As he pointed out, if you mail out 600,000 ballots and 60 percent of voters fill them out, then you have 240,000 empty ballots floating around out there. If cheaters can’t swing an election with that many ballots, then there really is nothing to worry about.

He argues that cost savings associated with mail-in ballots aren’t as great as assumed, and he agrees with me that elections are just about the last place one should look to save money. In a democracy, nothing is more important than getting elections right.

I have to admit that Mr. Johnson also won a bit of my heart, if not my vote, when I asked why he wanted his old job back. Part of the answer, he said, was just the feeling he got walking into the fine old Capitol building every day.

I have never worked in Helena, but I did work for a while in the state Capitol in Texas, a lovely old red granite building, and I know exactly what he meant.

Our ancestors may not have wanted as much government as we have, but they didn’t skimp on building nice things. They made a citizen proud to vote.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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