ATLANTA -- There they go again. Seeking a seat in Congress, a Georgia GOP legislator is raising the specter of phony voters - illegal immigrants sneaking into the voting booth to cast ballots.
In a letter to potential contributors, state Sen. Jim Whitehead wrote, "An illegal immigrant should no more be voting in our elections in Georgia than you or I should be voting in Mexico. That's just wrong!" according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Jim Galloway and Tom Baxter.
Mr. Whitehead didn't give any examples of voting by illegal immigrants because he can't cite any. Said Thomas Patterson, an expert on elections at Harvard's Shorenstein Center: "If you are an illegal immigrant, the last thing you want to do is show up at a polling place. ... We have enough trouble getting people to vote when they're eligible. The idea that people are going to stick their necks out and get [a] penalty stretches the imagination."
But an epidemic of fraudulent voters has become a favorite fairy tale of the Republican Party, a made-up monster they've planted under voters' beds that will jump out and scare us into endorsing voter ID laws. They invent stories about droves of people stealing driver's licenses or passports so they can cast illegal ballots. GOP leaders have intimidated voters of color, unfairly purged voter rolls and set up unconstitutional barriers to the ballot box - all in the name of cleaning up "voter fraud."
This unfortunate campaign has further eroded the GOP's credibility among voters of color, who see this for what it is: an effort to block black and brown voters, who tend to support Democrats, from the ballot box. And it may prove more costly still to the Republican Party. The obsession with so-called voter fraud helped fuel the dismissal of federal prosecutors - an ugly purge that has set up the possibility of a constitutional crisis.
David C. Iglesias was a highly regarded U.S. attorney based in Albuquerque, N.M., who had been recommended for the job by Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici. But Mr. Iglesias soon drew the wrath of Mr. Domenici, among others.
High-ranking Republicans in New Mexico were unhappy because Mr. Iglesias was not advancing a corruption case involving a Democrat on the GOP's timetable - before the elections. Equally suspicious, in their view, Mr. Iglesias declined to bring indictments in a separate case involving faulty voter registrations by a Democratic-leaning group.
Complaints that Mr. Iglesias was not aggressive in pursuing voter fraud were relayed to President Bush, who forwarded those complaints to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Soon, Mr. Iglesias, who had received excellent job evaluations, was asked to resign.
This ugly episode is unlikely to dim the GOP's enthusiasm for pursuing imaginary fake voters (or for turning away real ones). That's because that crusade accomplishes their purposes. It doesn't ferret out phony citizens trying to cast a ballot; they're virtually nonexistent. But it does work to suppress turnout among voters of color.
According to a recent study prepared for the federal Election Assistance Commission, states with restrictive voter ID requirements saw turnout at the polls fall by about 3 percent in the 2004 presidential election - and by two to three times as much for minorities. That's because people of color tend to be poorer, and the poor, in turn, are less likely to have driver's licenses to show at the polls.
It's no coincidence that poorer minority voters also tend to cast their ballots for Democrats. In close races, 3 percent makes a difference. If Republicans can shave off a few hundred or a few thousand Democratic votes, they are more likely to prevail. It's ugly and un-American, but that's the GOP playbook.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.