IS VOTER FRAUD the domestic equivalent of the myth of Weapons of Mass Destruction? And if so, Attorney General Alberto "I can't remember" Gonzales isn't exactly its architect, but he helped build the myth.

The voter-fraud issue is at the heart of the terminations of several U.S. attorneys; they were singled out for not prosecuting as aggressively as they should have.

But a recent report in the New York Times illustrates how the charge of pervasive voter fraud in the United States is itself a fraud. Not only are the number of actual cases small - just 86 convictions as of last year - it's becoming obvious that the charges provided cover for attempts to keep people from voting - that is, if they were poor or minority and likely to vote Democratic.

For example, Kimberly Prude, 43, a Milwaukee grandmother, was on probation for passing a bad check. After attending a rally for Al Sharpton in 2004, she joined hundreds of people who marched to City Hall and registered to vote and soon afterward sent in an absentee ballot. Prude mistakenly thought she could vote while on probation (which she could do legally in many other states.) When she learned that it was illegal, she immediately called City Hall to rescind her vote and was told it wasn't necessary.

She still was prosecuted and sentenced to jail for violating probation, one of several individuals reported by the Times to have been punished severely for voting.

Another man was deported after a decade in this country when he mistakenly voted after filling out the voter-registration card given to him when he renewed his driver's license.

Question: What difference would it make to the integrity of an election if a handful of individuals mistakenly got to vote? Or if an immigrant who had lived here for a decade mistakenly thought he could vote? Answer: Nothing.

That's why, under past policy, federal prosecutors were supposed to go after only schemes involving plans to illegally affect the outcome an election. But the Bush administration pressured prosecutors to target individuals.

Why waste taxpayer time and money on prosecutions like these? Creating the impression that large numbers of people were voting illegally helped to suppress poor and minority votes - that is, people who are likely to vote for Democrats.

That can make a big difference in the outcomes of elections.

After the debacle of the 2000 election in Florida, when the election system's flaws were exposed, congressional leaders vowed to make sure it didn't happen again. Yet much of the legislation on both the federal and state levels since then fixed things that weren't broken. Remember, the vote in Florida was suspect because thousands of people who should have been allowed to vote had been purged from the rolls. Thousands of others were confused by badly designed ballots. Few problems involved people who voted when they shouldn't have.

But charges of voter fraud allowed Republicans to push for and often obtain voter-identification requirements that in turn led to a decrease in voter turnout in 2006, according to a recent study.

Simple math and common sense suggest the effect of people voting illegally couldn't be widespread enough to affect any but the smallest election races. Despite this, Republicans have repeatedly maintained that widespread fraud has cost the party elections. There are many aspects of our electoral system that need to be fixed.

Voter fraud isn't one of them. *