Illustrations by Barry BlittOn March 21, 2005, a sandy-haired 43-year-old attorney named Mark "Thor" Hearne took a seat under the Greek Revival dome of the Ohio Statehouse to testify before the House Administration Committee. The committee was holding a field hearing on the subject of voter fraud, a hot topic in Congress—and in Ohio, where George W. Bush had eked out a narrow, hotly contested victory over John Kerry the year before.
Hearne introduced himself as counsel for the American Center for Voting Rights. The Buckeye State, he said, had suffered from "massive" registration fraud during the presidential election. Liberal groups like ACORN and the AFL-CIO were implicated in illegal voter registration schemes. An NAACP operative had paid for fake registrations in crack. Then, after enrolling thousands of phony voters, these same groups had flooded the courts with lawsuits designed to create bedlam on Election Day and prevent fraudulent votes from being discovered. To back up his story, Hearne submitted a 31-page report, signed by more than a dozen Ohio attorneys.
It was a startlingly lurid picture—and the latest chapter in a long-simmering feud between Republicans, who claim that fraud is rampant in US elections, and Democrats, who say such charges are merely an excuse to suppress the vote. Still, there was something different about this episode. It wasn't just a one-off bit of bluster during a bitter recount battle. That would have been politics as usual. Instead, it marked a dramatic widening of the war. This was, after all, a congressional hearing, and Hearne represented an organization dedicated to pushing Republican claims of voter fraud not just during post-election court fights, but everywhere and all the time.
So two questions lingered after Hearne had finished his dramatic testimony. Who exactly was Thor Hearne? And what was the American Center for Voting Rights, a group no one had heard of before that day? Therein hangs a tale, one that starts on a nail-biter of an election night in a nearly forgotten battleground—St. Louis, Missouri.
On election day 2000, as officials in Florida wrestled with butterfly ballots and hanging chads, Thor Hearne—then the Missouri counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign—faced a crisis. It had been a frantic day marked by long lines, improper purging of names from voter lists, and hundreds of voters turned away from the polls. As the problems in the overwhelmingly Democratic city mounted, the Gore campaign went to court to ask that the polls stay open three more hours. A judge granted the request, but Hearne appealed, and in short order, the decision was overturned.
Republicans were apoplectic over the Democrats' maneuver. At stake were not only Missouri's Electoral College votes, but also the fate of GOP Sen. John Ashcroft, who was locked in a tough reelection battle against a popular longtime rival, Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan. Carnahan had died in a plane crash a few weeks before the election, but his widow, Jean, was set to serve in his stead. In the end, even as Bush carried the state, Ashcroft lost to a dead man.
Ritzy Meckler, a springer spaniel whom some jokester had registered to vote, never cast a ballot—but she did become a cause célèbre for Republicans.
Missouri's senior senator, Kit Bond, fumed that Democrats had conducted "a criminal enterprise" designed to fraudulently register voters during the campaign and then create chaos on Election Day to cover it up. Republican losses, Bond told reporters, were due in part to dogs and dead people voting. Ritzy Meckler, a springer spaniel whom some jokester had registered to vote by mail, became a cause célèbre. A few months later, Missouri's Republican secretary of state, Matt Blunt, released a report concluding that St. Louis Democrats had mounted "an organized and successful effort to generate improper votes in large numbers."
It turned out there was nothing to these charges—no evidence ever surfaced of intentional fraud, only of confusion and bad management. But it didn't matter. Hearne, Ashcroft, and Bond were now obsessed with voter fraud, and with Bush in the White House they had the power to do something about it.
Ashcroft went first. Having been appointed Bush's attorney general, he quickly rolled out a new program to train US Attorneys and others to recognize and prosecute voter fraud. He also announced that he would designate special officers throughout the country to receive Election Day complaints about voter fraud and voter intimidation. "Election crimes are a high law enforcement priority of the Department," his office announced. (Just how high a priority would become apparent a few years later.)
Then it was Bond's turn. Shortly after Florida's shoddy procedures became a national sensation in 2000, Congress began work on legislation to clean up the voting system. For the most part this was a bipartisan effort; both Democrats and Republicans had been appalled by the hanging-chad spectacle. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed by huge majorities in October 2002 and was signed a few days later by President Bush.
But along the way, Bond made sure that the act was also a vehicle for his voter fraud crusade. Bond regaled reporters and senators with his tales of brazen abuses, often invoking Ritzy Meckler (who, it should be noted, never cast a ballot). The only way to fix these problems, he said, was to make sure each voter had to show ID at the polling place.
In the end, HAVA's identification requirement was a modest one. It applied only to first-time voters in federal elections who, like Ritzy, had registered by mail, and it directed states to accept a wide variety of ID types. But even so, it was a historic first. Suddenly, voter fraud—real or otherwise—was in the national spotlight.
Republicans kept up the drumbeat of complaints for two years. As the 2004 election approached, the pace picked up. John Ashcroft launched new fraud investigations in swing states. Karl Rove, who earlier in his career had turned a razor-thin loss in an Alabama judicial race into a razor-thin victory by insisting that his client had been robbed—and eventually getting the Supreme Court to agree—went on Sean Hannity's show to warn that "there has been a lot of voter registration fraud" in battleground states. Conservative journalist John Fund published Stealing Elections, a book claiming that shady vote-buying schemes by Democrats had left America's elections resembling those of "an emerging Third World country." Right-wing blogs trumpeted the case of Mac Stuart, a former ACORN employee who claimed he had been fired for refusing to go along with illegal voter registration activities in Florida.
And Thor Hearne? Well, his good work in Missouri had not gone unnoticed. He was now serving as national counsel for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign.
But if Republicans spent the 2004 election season feverishly warning that Democrats were scheming to steal the White House, it was nothing compared to the furor among Democrats after the election. The early exit polls on Election Day had suggested that John Kerry was leading in virtually every key state, including the crucial battleground of Ohio. Yet by the time all the actual votes were counted, Kerry's anticipated victory turned into a narrow loss—by a mere 120,000-vote margin in Ohio—and Bush secured a second term.
So, you might be wondering, what's wrong with laws requiring photo ID? Simple: Too many people can't easily get one.
Outrage boiled over immediately, and not just around muttered conspiracy theories that Republicans might have rigged Ohio's Diebold voting machines. Balloting problems were so widespread in 2004 that when the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee wrote a report titled "What Went Wrong in Ohio," the executive summary alone was three pages long. The bill of particulars was damning: Misallocation of voting machines led to long lines in Democratic precincts; Republicans knocked minority voters off the rolls with "caging" tactics (sending letters to voters' listed addresses and purging those whose mail was returned); some 93,000 ballots were declared spoiled and left uncounted. The report blamed one man above all for these problems: Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, who was also a state co-chair for the Bush-Cheney campaign. In one notorious move, Blackwell ordered county election boards to reject voter registration forms printed on paper of "less than 80 lb. text weight." (This order, at least, was later rescinded.)
It was against this backdrop that Thor Hearne took the stand before the House Administration Committee in March 2005 to talk about the Ohio election—and shift the focus back to where Republicans felt it belonged, on deception by Democrats. And it was against that same backdrop that GOP legislatures across the nation began rolling out a brand new weapon in the voter fraud wars: the photo ID mandate.
In the past, states had accepted a variety of documents, such as utility bills and bank statements, to verify that a voter was who he said he was. But in '05, Republicans in Indiana pushed through a law to change all that. It called, for the first time, for photo ID only, no exceptions.
Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that it was just a cynical effort to make it harder for people with no picture ID—often the young, the poor, and the nonwhite—to vote. The bill passed nonetheless, on a party-line vote. Then it was challenged in court, and three years later, in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the US Supreme Court handed down a key decision upholding the photo ID requirement. Sure, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority, the law might have been motivated in part by Republican "partisan interest." But so long as its goals were supported by "valid neutral justifications," it was constitutional.
With that, the floodgates opened. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have now passed photo ID laws, and bills are pending in 11 more.