James O'Keefe hustles voters into backing ID laws

James O'Keefe takes part in a press conference at the National Press Club Oct. 21, 2009, in Washington. Getty Images

(The Nation) I told myself I wasn't going to write about James O'Keefe, mostly because his sophomoric pranks are mostly for the net effect of making his pockets fat. He has his hands out, and I'm not trying to help him get paid. I no more want to discuss voting by reference of O'Keefe than I want to write about Middle East affairs by reference of Sacha Baron Cohen in "The Dictator."

But his influence on voting rights opponents and legislators alike is particularly jarring. When you hear activists and state senators say we need voter ID laws because of voter fraud, instead of citing data, or even anecdotes, lately they've been citing O'Keefe. When I was in Houston at the True the Vote conference I was hardly surprised when the audience erupted in applause as O'Keefe took the podium. You would've thought Tim Tebow entered the room. And sure enough, he presented one of his "Project Veritas" videos of himself telling unsuspecting poll workers in Minnesota that he wanted to register "Timothy Tebow" to vote before given a stack of voter registration applications.

Watch the video here

See? There is how fraud happens, O'Keefe told the crowd. What was surprising was that no one dared to speak up that no fraud had actually happened. What was O'Keefe's point in showing this? Yes, it's true. Someone can fill out a registration card with a fictitious name and address. It's also true that election officials will verify that the person on the registration card exists, and toss those that don't. Before that happens, if the person or party handling the registration cards finds something fishy -- a dubious name or sketchy address -- they'll often report it to election officials themselves if they don't discard it, as what ACORN did, contrary to popular opinion. But no crime has been committed, and photo voter ID laws wouldn't prevent such registration problems anyway.

But O'Keefe isn't looking for veritas or accuracy -- he just needs the perception that something fishy is going on so that he can direct you to his page and have you contribute to his fairy tale fund. That's how hustles work. Right now, on his website he invites people to fork over the dollars because "Our work in North Carolina as draining on our staff and funds -- but we produced jaw-droppiong [sic] results once again!"

Here's the jaw-dropping results: a Veritas actor assumed the name of a man, Michael Bolton, who died two weeks before North Carolina's May 8 primary. O'Keefe's actor went to Bolton's polling place and attempted to fill out the dead man's ballot. The poll worker asked the actor if he was Michael Bolton Jr., the deceased's son, to which the actor responded affirmatively, but O'Keefe edits this part out. Instead, he presents the video as if his actor voted on behalf of a dead person, even though the actor never actually filled out the ballot.

This jaw-dropper left the Bolton family still grieving, and now fuming. The elections board is now investigating O'Keefe and Gary Bartlett, executive director of the board of elections, says the stunt may be a felony. You'd think a person who upset a mourning family would be apologetic. Not O'Keefe. His response to Bartlett: "Our elections process does rely upon honesty and transparency so investigations into whether our elections are being conducted properly can't be harmful to the process -- particularly ones that expose ballots being offered in the name of the dead or registered voters who refused jury service because they identified themselves as non-citizens."

The "non-citizens" reference is to two individuals in the video they claim were non-citizens who voted, but Bartlett found those allegations false also. For those, O'Keefe wrote:

However, while our facts were correct in the report, the perception presented in the investigation -- which highlighted the ease in which voter fraud can be committed -- deserves correction in regards to the citizenship status of Mr. Romero and Mr. Gorzkowski.

But his facts weren't correct. And the false "perception" he admitted deserved correction left the Bolton family's mother with the conclusion that voter ID laws are needed so more people like O'Keefe won't pull pranks. That's the formula: manufacture fraud, hoodwink election officials and the electorate with it, and then exploit the resulting confusion as "proof" why voter ID is needed.

Bartlett told the News & Observer, "Election laws are based on honesty and self-policing, and when someone falsely brings validity of the process into question, that hurts the public's confidence in the process." It's a con of the worst kind: intentionally molesting a person's confidence, and then leaving them to feel ashamed because they think either they invited the molestation or weren't smart enough to fend it off.

Such tactics, though, have infected legislators in New Hampshire, where an odious voter ID bill has passed the legislature propelled by voter fraud beliefs. O'Keefe, who produced a deceiving video there, took credit for that at True the Vote. Republicans in Congress have demanded Attorney General Eric Holder investigate the fake fraud as dramatized in O'Keefe's videos. In Mississippi, after a photo voter ID bill was passed, the senate elections committee chairman Chris McDaniel cited O'Keefe's videos. When people cite the polls that 64 percent of Americans believe voter fraud exists, it's mostly because people like O'Keefe brought into existence.

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Brentin Mock is a New Orleans-based journalist who serves as lead reporter on Voting Rights Watch, a reporting partnership of Colorlines.com and The Nation, covering the challenges presented by new voter ID laws, suppression of voter registration drives and other attempts to limit electoral power of people of color. In his previous position as senior editor at The Loop 21, Brentin also covered electoral politics with a significant amount of reporting on voter ID issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.