Several weeks ago (before the selection of Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate), I listed the voter suppression laws in states like Pennsylvania and Florida as one of the reasons Barack Obama was likely to be defeated in his re-election bid.
In response to that column, I received a number of happy e-mails from Romney supporters applauding my overall prediction (which I have since reversed because of the Ryan pick). Two of them, however, went so far as to take me to task for referring to the voter ID requirements as “voter suppression laws.” One obviously fervent Republican even went so far as to claim that even if vote fraud is not a major problem, suppressing the vote of citizens who are not well versed in the issues, let alone astute enough to figure out how to get themselves registered, was hardly a bad result.
Okay, let’s try to see what we are really saying here. Admittedly, partisanship can cloud judgment on both sides of any issue. But an exhaustive study by the Bush administration in 2007 found a grand total of 86 instances of improper voting throughout the entire country in the previous presidential election. And it further found that only six of those instances could in any way be considered to be actual voter fraud (i.e. a voter claiming to be someone he or she wasn’t). The rest were seemingly innocent mistakes like voting in the wrong precinct or voting in a state other than the one registered in (due to a recent move).
Such mistakes are unfortunate, but they are not fraud, to wit: they are not instances of individuals seeking to vote illegally by assuming another’s identity, and they can hardly be considered widespread, accounting for less than .000001 of one percent of the total vote in the election. Even if they had all occurred in Florida in the 2000 election and had all been cast to Bush’s advantage and Gore’s disadvantage, it wouldn’t have changed the result in that contest.
The only kind of fraud the current voter ID requirements seek to thwart is the kind represented by the individual who isn’t whom he or she says he or she is (the six nefarious individuals uncovered in the Bush administration’s exhaustive 2007 study of the “problem”). The new laws would not do anything to stop ballot stuffing by corrupt election officials as is claimed to have occurred in 1960 in places like Chicago and Texas, thereby electing John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon; nor would they eliminate the “hanging chad” controversies that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore that awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
No, the new voter ID laws are only intended to keep people from claiming to be someone else, thereby denying them the ability to vote twice or to vote at all when they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible to. Otherwise, the current ID laws have no effect and no discernible purpose.
Unless, of course, their real purpose is to suppress the vote of particular demographic groups: groups made up of individuals who may not have picture IDs and who may not even know they need one to be able to vote. The votes of such individuals are being potentially suppressed by the ID laws that have been enacted since 2008 (all in states controlled by Republican legislatures and governors, by the way), and it is fair, in a country that holds itself to be a true democracy, to ask why.
The callous, jaded, cynical reason would be the one I suggested in my column several weeks ago: to suppress the vote totals for the Democratic nominee (in this case, Obama). If those demographic groups whose ability to vote would be suppressed by the laws tend to vote for the Democrat instead of the Republican, then the laws would be of great benefit to the Republicans.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the groups most likely to be adversely affected are the very poor, the elderly, the young and the ESL citizens in the country—all groups that tend to vote Democratic rather than Republican.
That fervent Republican reader I referred to earlier made no apologies for the second possible objective behind the current voter ID laws. In his view, suppressing the votes of those who are, for want of a better way to say it, extremely ignorant, could only redound to the benefit of the country. Here’s how he expressed his unabashedly elitist viewpoint:
“The distinction between recognizing any given citizen’s right to vote and offering encouragement to any given person–no matter how ignorant, clueless, or apathetic–is elitist, but it is an elitism shared by anyone who is honest and sensitive to the blurry line between democratic government and mob rule. Would you personally encourage someone to vote if that person thought the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1964, or that Wyoming is a European country, or that Obama is the anti-Christ, or that the Holocaust never happened?”
Mob rule? Is that what we are now calling it when a less educated populace is allowed to vote? Sounds more like a cry for Athenian democracy, wherein only the land- (and slave-) owning full citizens of the city-state were permitted to participate in the governance of the society.
I don’t like ignorance on any level, and I don’t like having the fate of the country dependent on the predilections of un-educated and disinterested individuals. But mob rule is what happens when elections are irrelevant and governing decisions are made in the streets, not when all citizens (even those who were deprived of even minimal education) are allowed to cast their votes.
Want to avoid elections decided by ignorant voters? Educate them. Want to avoid mob rule? Repeal voter suppression laws.
Only in a truly democratic society can the rule of law gain the respect of the populace. And only when the right to vote is fully honored and is neither restricted nor impeded can the goal of a truly democratic society be achieved.