Any pirates in there? Photographer: Edward Linsmier/Getty Images

When Immigrant Voter Fraud Was Real

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Voter fraud and illegal immigration both loom large in conservative politics, and frequently intersect. The cross-pollination occasionally culminates in rich tales of derring-do, including reports, in the anxious days before the 2012 election, of "van loads" of Somali pirates voting in Ohio.

To the uninitiated, the panic seems a tad exotic. But it has deep American roots. In the 1840s, members of the U.S. Senate sought to end the twin scourge of immigration fraud in service of electoral fraud. As a Whig speaker told a rally in New Haven, Connecticut, a way must be found to stop the "illegal foreign votes that are thrown against us."

In 1845, Senator John Berrien, a Whig from Georgia, tried. He introduced legislation to restrict the naturalization of immigrants, and issued a report to expose the efforts of Democrats in New York and other cities to naturalize large numbers of immigrants before elections and shepherd them to the polls.

Judah Hammond, a retired New York City judge, testified that, "On some days, in time of the election, I have been actually employed in the process of naturalization in the marine court from 10 o'clock in the morning till sunset, with hardly a single intermission."

In addition, it seemed third parties sometimes paid the fees of immigrants seeking naturalization.

Jesse Oakley, a New York superior court clerk, was asked by Senate investigators whether naturalization fees were sometimes paid "by committees, or persons other than the applicant?"

"There have been such instances," Oakley replied.

"Did such instances occur at and shortly previous to the elections?"

"They did."

Fear of being overrun by immigrant voters goes all the way back to the nation's founding. "With nativist indignation, Federalists accused Jeffersonians of sacrificing national purity and stability for electoral gain," wrote Daniel Tichenor in "Dividing Lines," his book on immigration politics. "If some means are not adopted to prevent the indiscriminate admission of wild Irishmen and others to the right to suffrage," said Federalist Harrison Gray Otis, "there will be an end to liberty and property."

Like the wild Irish, the early Pennsylvania Dutch didn't look so quaint to Benjamin Franklin, who feared an influx of aliens "so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them."

Nativists win battles from time to time, imposing sharp restrictions on immigration, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. But American demographics -- Irish, German, Chinese and, yes, even Somalis with the temerity to go to the polls in vans -- are a testament to a lost war.

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