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One paranoid hearing

Secretary of State Ross Miller’s electronic poll book bill is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation that ought to have little trouble achieving a consensus in the Nevada Legislature.

The bill would marry voter registration lists with photos from the DMV database, allowing poll workers to compare a voter’s face with his or her driver’s license photo. Registered voters without a driver’s license would be photographed when they cast a vote at the polls. And those people whom poll workers suspect of being somebody else would be asked to sign an affidavit, affirming under oath they are who they say they are.

Nobody would be disenfranchised, everybody would still get to cast a vote. And the process would be more secure than the current system, in which voters sign a book at the polls and the signature is compared to the one on file.

Oh, and in case you’re worried: This bill would not provide for same-day voter registration, although it would be possible to institute a same-day registration system more securely and accurately under Miller’s system than it would be today.

The initial criticism from Democrats was that Miller’s bill was an expensive solution in search of an exceedingly rare problem: voters posing as another person to cast an illegal ballot. But at a UNLV forum about the bill on Friday afternoon, you’d get the impression that voter fraud was rampant. Audience questions – and shouted comments – ranged from the somewhat implausible to the overtly racist.

The problem with allegations of voter fraud is that there’s very little proof of any widespread, election-changing voting taking place. But a lack of evidence is no deterrent to increasingly paranoid conspiracy theorists slinging fictional or exaggerated allegations that election outcomes were influenced by fraud.

Here in Nevada, for example, supporters of former U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle have maintained the absolute myth that Sen. Harry Reid won the 2010 election by fraudulent means. They cite polls that predicted an Angle victory as well as reports of union members bused to polling places.

Actual explanation: Bad polling and a good union ground game.

Paranoid explanation: Fraud!

Part of the appeal of voter fraud charges is that they relieve the losing side of facing hard truths. They didn’t lose because they had an inferior candidate, with ideas that didn’t appeal to a majority of voters. It was fraud! It wasn’t that their campaign fundraising, messaging or get-out-the-vote effort was badly executed. It was fraud!

Hucksters like to encourage these ideas – and to blow real instances of voter fraud or attempted voter fraud out of proportion. In part, it’s to get ratings. In part, it’s to gain support for onerous voter identification laws that disenfranchise people, generally people they don’t want to vote anyway.

The ones who don’t know any better are simply ignorant. The ones who are doing it on purpose are evil, because they’re intentionally subverting a pillar of democracy in order to frustrate people exercising a fundamental civil right.

In either case, the result of their irresponsibility was Friday’s hearing, a room half-full of people who peppered Miller, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and a couple of respected activists with questions that showed they were clearly concerned about a fictional wave of voter fraud.

Lee Rowland, a former Nevada ACLU official now with the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, tried to calm the crowd by telling them the George W. Bush administration combed voter registration records for evidence of widespread fraud and didn’t find any. It’s important not to overreact and pass a law to prevent something that’s not actually a problem, she said. (The Brennan Center is neutral on Miller’s bill.)

Many members of the crowd didn’t believe it.

Because, you know, fraud!

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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