A few Republicans across the country are engaged in what I consider to be onerous, anti-democratic and even anti-American efforts to try to suppress voter turnout of groups not likely to vote Republican. I do not believe this to be in the spirit of how most Republicans think, or the traditions of the grand old party. But it’s happening.
The logic is simple: college students, immigrants, and the poor tend to vote Democratic more than Republican. They also are less likely to have state drivers’ licenses and other forms of picture ID. Moreover, though the Supreme Court has made it clear that students in college can vote in elections (states cannot deny them the ability to register – there is no requirement they have the intent to make a community their permanent home), students are less likely to have the kind of ID that some Republicans want to require.
The goal is clear: increase the chances that Republicans will win close elections by trying to suppress the turnout of groups that tend to vote Democratic. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York State School of Law has issued the most definitive report on the impact of these laws, noting:
“Over the past century, our nation expanded the franchise and knocked down myriad barriers to full electoral participation. In 2011, however, that momentum abruptly shifted.
State governments across the country enacted an array of new laws making it harder to register or to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disenfranchised millions who have past criminal convictions but who are now taxpaying members of the community. Still others made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting.
These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. “
Many rationalize this effort as protection against fraud. Spare me. At least New Hampshire’s speaker of the House William O’Brien was honest about the intent of making it harder to vote:
“O’Brien told the group that college students registering to vote on Election Day ‘are basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, voting as a liberal. I look at towns like Plymouth and Keene and Hanover, and particularly Plymouth,’ O’Brien said. ‘They’ve lost the ability to govern themselves.’
That’s it, those young foolish kids might vote liberal! So making it harder to vote seems the right thing to do. There are numerous studies that show how such laws prevent people from voting. And while some offer misguided thought experiments (e.g., ‘I have to show ID to buy booze, why not to vote’) to rationalize the effort, the reality is that despite the expansion of voting rights and increased ease until this year of voting in US elections, all evidence indicates that fraud is lower than ever.
Intimidation has also been overt in Wisconsin as opponents of the campaign to recall Scott Walker have harassed people gathering signatures and even committed felonies by tearing up valid petitions and gathering names on fake petitions with no intent to submit them. Democracy falters when people see it as a hindrance to “winning at any cost.”
The most obscene thing about these efforts is that higher voter turnout is usually associated with stronger communities and less poverty. The more engaged people are in their civil society, the less likely they are to want to leech off of it and not take responsibility. People who vote are more likely to work, pay taxes, take an active role in their community, and become informed on the issues. The best way to expand the sense of personal responsibility and community involvement is to get people engaged in the process; make it easier rather than harder to vote.
It’s possible that these voter suppression efforts will backfire. Students and members of other groups who are adversely affected might become motivated to get involved with more intensity than before. The reality is that students, minorities and the poor tend not to vote. Even in 2008 when the youth supported Obama by a large margin the number of non-voters under 25 was as high as usual. Even with a black candidate, black voting levels remained far lower than average, the poor vote far less often than the middle class or wealthy.
Will this further discourage them from voting, or can the Democrats turn it into a motivational tactic — defy those who want to silence you by taking the steps necessary to assure your voice is heard! Will this hurt the GOP among middle class voters who find this unfair and even dishonest? I’m not sure, but you can bet that on college campuses these laws will yield intense organizational efforts by students involved in campaigns to try to not only get out the vote, but get students angry enough to want to vote. By all accounts a larger and more organized Occupy movement will emerge in the summer; this could be an area of focus.
To me it’s troubling that people would embrace unnecessary efforts to suppress the vote in order to try to win. It’s vindictive, anti-democratic and petty. But in an era where “anything goes” to win, it’s not surprising. I personally think these tactics will backfire, at least in a Presidential election year where the campaign is likely to be intense and emotional. It also adds to an already negative Republican image; Scott Walker’s Wisconsin approval ratings have been sinking like a stone, now with 38% approval and 58% disapproval. Maine recently overturned an effort to stop same day registration despite some dirty politics by the (out of state) opposition.
I again don’t think this reflects the true values of the Republican party. I think most Republicans want to win, and believe they can win by convincing people of their values, arguing for a less intrusive government and more fiscal conservatism. These tactics reflect a Machiavellian insider game by those who consider elections less as great public debates and more as ‘full contact sports’ where two teams look to use anything they can to their advantage.
I vote at the local community center. I give my name, and they check it off. I usually know at least one person working there, many in the community know each other. It would be absurd to all have to show some kind of ID to be allowed to vote. The impact this would have on even those not dissuaded would be sad, and there are likely to be elderly folk and others who would be turned away because they expect to vote as they usually do. Let’s not make it harder to vote.