Contrary to what has become a popular conclusion in blogs and editorials, the recent revelations about felons having illegally voted in Virginia is not evidence that the state needs the voter ID law passed this year by the General Assembly. The emerging law – which is still being tweaked by the governor and lawmakers – requires voters who do not have proof of identification when they show up at the polls to cast a provisional ballot. It replaces a law that allowed voters without IDs to sign a form affirming their identity and then cast a regular ballot like everyone else. The purpose of the new law, according to its defenders, is to prevent someone from showing up at the polls and pretending to be someone else. The problem legislators have in defending the law is that no one ever fakes their identity at the polls. In fact, recent studies show that there is so little voter impersonation fraud that the chances of it happening are about the same as being struck by lightning.
There are reasons why voter impersonation fraud is so rare. First, the impersonator needs to know the name, address and polling place of someone else who is registered to vote and who has not yet voted on Election Day. Second, the penalty is a felony, meaning that the impersonator must be willing to risk prison time, a hefty fine and a lifetime ban on voting in order to cast one vote in one election.
Now, how about those felons who voted illegally? It ends up none of them committed voter impersonation fraud. They signed up to vote just like everyone else, and they appeared at the polls and cast a vote in their own name. Where they went wrong was in voting without the governor having restored their voting rights, which they lost automatically when their convictions were handed down. It could be they committed outright fraud by purposely not checking the box on the registration form asking if they are felons. It could be an oversight. It could be more the fault of the person helping with the registration process.