Election fraud is in the news again. More precisely, efforts to suppress voter fraud have come under legal and political scrutiny. In Florida, a plan to remove non-citizens from the voter rolls has been challenged in a series of lawsuits (a comprehensive, although highly critical account is here). In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett has refused requests to delay enforcement of a voter ID law that could exclude up to 9.2% of registered voters in the state (Gov. Corbett’s office contests the figures). A similar law in Texas goes to federal court today.   

These laws are often described as a Republican plot to suppress turnout. In fact, they’re broadly popular, with nearly 75% approval on some polls.   The trouble is that ID requirements and purges of the rolls seem to be a solution in search of a problem.

A report released last year by a group that supports the laws found only 400 cases of fraud in the last ten years. And that’s fraud in the broad sense, which includes vote buying and fraudulent registration. There were many fewer cases of voter impersonation or non-citizens actually voting. In none of them, so far as I can tell, was the actual outcome of the election tainted. There may be some voter fraud in this country. But there’s little reason to think that it matters very much.

So what’s going on here? According to many of their critics, the movement against voter fraud is inspired, if not by tactical considerations, then by outright racism. If so, it’s pretty ineffectual. A study by the liberal Brennan Center found that anti-fraud laws have little effect on turnout. And voting rates among minorities actually increased in Georgia in 2008, a year after the state passed a voter ID law. Of course, that was the year Barack Obama ran for president, an historic event that attracted black voters, in particular, to the polls. But the ID requirement apparently didn’t turn many away.

The practical impact of these laws, then, is likely to be more limited than either advocates or critics believe. Very little fraud is going to be prevented because there isn’t much fraud, especially of the kinds the laws target, in the first place. On the other hand, there’s not much risk of mass disenfranchisement. ID requirements apparently have a minimal effect on turnout. And even Florida’s statewide review of the electoral rolls could find only 96 ineligible voters.

Rather than an epidemic of stolen votes or a legal coup d’etat, then, election fraud is a red herring that both parties invoke both to energize their bases and to prepare them for the possibility of failure. The whole controversy could be likely be defused with a simple compromise, such as combining ID laws with funding to provide free  proofs of identity to citizens who don’t have them. But it’s in neither party’s interest to make the issue disappear. They prefer the opportunity to play sore losers, should the necessity arise.