It’s the biggest voter ID scandal you never heard of. An election in the United States stolen right under the noses of election officials thanks to lax laws and voter fraud.
A primary election for the Missouri State House normally doesn’t draw much national attention. But proponents of voter ID laws have seized on the election, which was decided by a single vote, claiming it shows why governments need to crack down on what they view as an epidemic of voter fraud.
This race, frequently cited by leading voter ID advocates like Kris Korbach, Kansas’s secretary of state, and the Heritage Foundation's Hans Von Spakovsky has been described as an election “stolen ... [with] votes illegally cast by citizens of Somalia.” As a result, it has become one of the key examples pointed to by voter ID advocates. It’s a concrete example of an election where fraudulent votes actually decided the result.
There’s just one problem with this tale of voter fraud: it never happened. No fraud was ever found and the only irregularities cited by the courts that heard the case were unrelated to voter ID.
The contested election was a 2010 Democratic primary for a state house seat in Northeast Kansas City between John Rizzo, the scion of a prominent local political family, and Will Royster, a retired airline pilot active in the community. When the smoke cleared, Rizzo had won by precisely one vote, 664-663, in this heavily Democratic district where no Republican was on the November ballot. But Royster immediately alleged fraud. There were a number of voters from Kansas City’s Somali enclave who didn’t speak English who received improper assistance from other members of the community who either encouraged them to vote for Rizzo or may have even directly marked the ballots themselves. There were other issues as well with the adminstration of ballots at the polling places.
According to Adam Scheiber, Royster’s “unofficial campaign manager,” there were various instances where election judges did not follow “the laws on the books. ” He reiterated numerous complains about how the pollworkers marked or did not mark ballots and took various shortcuts that were not in accordance with Missouri election law. What was not an issue was impersonation of voters, which University of California, Irvine law professor Rick Hasen points out is “the only kind of fraud that a voter ID [law] prevents.”
Shawn Kieffer, a director of the Kansas City board of elections who described the changes that the board made in the aftermath of the race, echoed this. He noted that Missouri has an ID requirement, albeit not a photo ID requirement, and said that every voter who cast a ballot “came and showed ID to bipartisan judges.” Instead, the issues in the race had to do with election judges initialing ballots in advance and being far too tolerant of electioneering in the polling place. Kieffer was confident that Kansas City’s board of elections had taken the necessary steps to retrain election judges to prevent such issues in the future.
John Rizzo, the candidate who won that contested election and is now finishing his first term in the Missouri State House, expressed his confidence, unsurprisingly, that the process was fair. He noted that every vote cast in his election had been done properly according to the courts and not a single judge dissented. In fact, Rizzo believed that his race had been more scrutinized than “any other election we’ve seen in Missouri in modern history.” The issue in his mind was not any irregularity in the process but merely that in “a one vote election” it’s natural for “people [to examine] the slightest bit of impropriety.”
In fact, even Von Spakovsky, who has cited this race in op-eds as justification for voter ID laws, admitted that he didn’t know if voter ID would have changed the results of the election. Instead, he said, “voter ID is not an answer to every type of fraud." Von Spakovsky further dwelled on what he thought might have been an issue in this case — that there was no election judge who spoke Somali. He noted that there is sometimes “an unfortunate victimization that occurs in immigrant communities when people don’t speak English and go into a polling place.” In his opinion, the only way to prevent this is to insure that that there are “polling officials who work the polls who speak the language” in areas with large immigrant communities.
However, this contested election is not being used as an example of why we need more multi-lingual pollworkers. Instead, this race is the only actual instance cited in the United States of impersonation at the polls changing the results of an election. The problem is that there wasn’t any. In fact, even when the Supreme Court validated a photo ID requirement in Indiana in Crawford v. Marion County, the majority opinion stated matter-of-factly that there was “no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.”
The most recent comprehensive study has shown only 10 alleged cases in any election in the United States of in-person voter impersonation since the year 2000.
Of course, there isn’t much evidence of eligible voters without identification either. Just as that Supreme Court case found no voter impersonation had ever taken place, the plaintiffs couldn’t provide the Court with one voter would-be disenfranchised for lack of identification. After all, it’s not totally unreasonable to demand identification at the polls. Keisha Gaskins of the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice concedes, “there are all kinds of reasons to defend voter ID.” The question becomes balancing the theoretical harm of poor and elderly voters being disenfranchised versus a theoretical problem of voter impersonation. Voter ID advocates may be making a case in good faith about their fears of fraud. But, as Rizzo put it, if this is the best example that voter identification proponents have of impersonation at the polls “they’re really grasping at straws.”