Theft is usually a personal tragedy, but when an election is stolen, it’s a national one.

Voter fraud numbers are staggering. Forty-six states have prosecuted vote fraud cases in the past decade, which collectively number in the thousands. Thousands more likely have gone unprosecuted.

We should all be asking why.

Pollsters tell us the election will be determined by turnout, or by unemployment numbers, or by Gov. Mitt Romney’s “binders of women,” or whether we force the Catholic Church to pay for Sandra Fluke’s birth control. But the glaring omission from the strategists’ calculus is the real “dark horse” of the 2012 election, and that’s voter fraud.

Both the Left and Right are concerned about it. The election integrity crisis has been highlighted by journalists on both sides of the political spectrum -- from the right, the American Spectator’s Quin Hillyer, and the National Review’s John Fund; on the left, Mother Jones’ Jaeah Lee.

Most Americans share their concern. More than 70 percent of Americans in a number of public opinion surveys favor anti-fraud measures, like voter ID requirements. That’s because there is both motive and opportunity for stealing elections.

If a group believes that billions in foreign aid, amnesty, or industry-saving stimulus funds hang in the balance, this is more than sufficient incentive to steal an election.

The stakes could not be higher. An American need not be old enough to remember the Kennedy-Nixon election, where just one more vote in each precinct would have changed the outcome -- and history. But one doesn’t have to look any further back than the 2000 election. A few hundred fraudulent votes, and the leader of the free world might have been implementing climate change regulations rather than invading Iraq. People around the world live and die based on the outcome of U.S. elections.

One U.S. Senate race in Colorado shows us the vastness of the problem. During an audit, authorities took a closer look at who voted and were surprised to find that nearly 5,000 people voted illegally. Colorado’s lax election controls allowed thousands of honest citizens to be disenfranchised by having their votes canceled out with illegal votes. It was as if their votes were erased. For every illegal vote that authorities detect, how many more did they miss?

Colorado is not alone.  Vote fraud likely changed the 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate race when Al Franken won by just a 312-vote margin.  After the fact, investigators discovered the election was rife with fraud.  No one knows the full extent, but investigators were able to find more than 1,000 of the illegal votes cast.  At least 170 of those illegal voters have been convicted -- so far. 

But by the time these investigations and prosecutions come to light, it is too late.  Consequences?  Franken was the deciding vote in favor of Obamacare.   Yes, elections have consequences.

The 2012 election cycle has already seen a serious series of voting irregularities. The son of Congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, was infamously caught on tape explaining how to commit in-person vote fraud.

Worse, multiple swing states, including North Carolina, Ohio and Kansas, have reported that their electronic voting machines are changing Romney votes to Obama votes.  In Texas, electronic voting machines are changing votes for any candidate who votes for the Green Party -- or Republican incumbent Rick Perry.  Is anyone really surprised?  A 2007 Princeton University study lamented, "[m]any computer scientists doubt that paperless [digital voting machines] can be made reliable and secure, and they expect that any failures of such systems would likely go undetected."

Sometimes, registered voters don’t even know fraud has been committed in their name.  How does this happen?  The states’ failure to maintain accurate voter rolls, for starters. 

A former Department of Justice official recently confirmed there are at least 259 counties in the U.S. that have more people on the voting rolls than residents.  Excess voters can be deceased, non-citizens, the incarcerated or newly made felons, or persons registered in more than one jurisdiction.  Past prosecutions show us that an enterprising vote fraud organization can identify those persons -- especially if they are listed in official records as deceased -- and vote their ballots or pay others to vote their ballots.  Again, we only know about those who were caught.

Tens of thousands of voters are currently registered to vote in more than one state, leaving a perfect opportunity for more fraud.  One comparison of states’ voter rolls found that thousands of voters are registered to vote in both North Carolina and South Carolina, and another found thousands more registered in both New York and Florida.  These duplicates, when exploited for fraud, can be numerous enough to change the outcome in swing states.  

Some activist groups deny that vote fraud is real.  But the numbers and prosecutions reveal that the activists live in a parallel universe.  So they resort to the second line of attack:  labeling anti-fraud efforts like voter ID and maintenance of the voter rolls as “voter suppression.” 

Because of the “vote suppression” false narrative, stopping vote fraud can be a thankless job.  This year, Florida tried to remove ineligible voters on their roles, in accordance with legal standards, only to be obstructed by the Justice department, which essentially argued -- unsuccessfully -- that the result would be voter suppression.  

This is a rather suspect way of thinking about voter roll maintenance.  Isn’t the suppression of the dead vote, non-citizen vote or fraudulent/impersonated vote a good thing?  As the Supreme Court has found, real vote suppression is the canceling out of legal votes with illegal ones.

A variant of the vote suppression narrative is the specious argument that voter ID requirements will suppress demographics less likely to have an ID.  The problem?  These critics have yet to credibly identify a demographic of adult Americans without ID.  These days, a person cannot attend kindergarten, enter a bar, or even rent a pair of bowling shoes without ID.

How do the critics of voter ID propose to insure the integrity of American elections? 

They don’t. 

If no ID is required, then voting is a free for all, where voters can vote “early and often,” as Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley famously instructed.

The inescapable conclusion is that the two primary solutions to vote fraud are voter ID laws and the regular maintenance of the voter rolls.  If every voter proves his or her identity, and only live, legal, non-fictional persons are on the voter rolls, most avenues for fraud disappear.

The next American president will be selected by two groups:  the American electorate, and those fraudsters who would seek to cancel out the percentage of the electorate’s vote necessary to change the outcome.  If the race is as close as we think it is, the fraudsters could be few in number and large in influence.

We must stop them. 

Publius is a pen name for a civil rights lawyer and veteran D.C. insider.