Three Objections to Voter ID

Over at Voices we have had an intense discussion on the Voter ID laws. Are they as objectionable as I would assert? Or is this a case of “no harm, no foul?”  Perhaps voting should be understood best like buying a case of beer.

My friend, Jason Ellis suggests a scenario:

So Bill, I should be able to walk into your precinct, say “I’m Bill
Harris”, sign an affidavit, then vote a straight Republican ticket? Now
of course there are then 2 Bill Harris votes, they can even check
signatures and prove that you were the real Bill Harris, but there would
be absolutely no way to track me down, nor would there be any way to
figure out how I voted or how to correct the count, the damage is done.

I don’t think as a society taking our election laws as seriously as we
do beer laws is a bad thing.

Of course, much of the question turns on whether the behavior Jason describes actually occurs. Are there documented cases of this sort of behavior? And if so, are of such number that they merit legislation? (That is, is the existing law insufficient to prevent or punish this behavior?) And besides, if one were to commit fraud of this sort, wouldn’t you just use that fake ID that got you into bars at 19? A more important question is the impact of even innocuous measures on actual residents. Jonathan Alter at The Washington Monthly provides plenty of details of the impact in Pennsylvania.

In the run-up to passage of the bill, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele promoted a study estimating that 99 percent of the state’s registered voters already have valid photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that would allow them to vote. In other words, the whole thing was no big deal.
It turned out that 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters — 758,000 people — did not have ID from PennDOT.

If then the amount of reported electoral fraud is minimal, that naturally raises another question, why the push for the law? For the moment, let’s throw out the crassly partisan one, that it’s actually a sneaky way to stop Democrats from voting (albeit contrary to statements in the Alter article above), what then might be the other objections to be raised. Three suggest themselves: A Statist perspective, Voting as a property right, and the long shadow of history.

The first two objectives are anchored in conservative political thinking, though as we will see, they are also in some tension with one another.

A Statist Approach

First, there is the idea that this relationship is mediated by government-issued documents. This is a statist vision of the relationship between citizens and government. One is not one’s own (a “natural-born citizen” if you will) but depends on the State’s prior validation  of one’s standing. My right to vote then rests on a state-issued card; suffrage depends on the sufferance of the State. Again, I can hear some say, ‘And? What’s the big deal?’ So think of it like this: voting is a kind of speech, an expression of opinion. Should that act of speaking then be made conditional on some other act of the State, where I can only speak if spoken to, as it were? While admittedly innocuous in principle, in philosophy that idea that my political speech depends first on State-document means that my right to speak is in some sense not inalienable (per Declaration of Independence), the rights do not belong to me as a person of the nation (a citizen) but only by some (liberal) sufferance of the State. To accept the photo ID us then to admit that my rights are not my own.

This argument is the same that drives some conservatives absolutely bonkers when it comes to a national identity card. It inserts the State between me and my rights before the government.

Property Rights?

Second, there is an older conservative notion that voting is not universal, but a matter of those invested in someway. Practically, this translates as ‘if you can’t take time to get an ID, then maybe you don’t deserve to vote.’ One can also see this in the phrase coined by the WSJ for those who do not pay net federal income taxes, “lucky duckies.” Participation in government belongs best to those who are invested in its outcomes (this would also be the underlying philosophy with the notion of money as speech, since the government affects my money, why shouldn’t I be able to use it to unrestrictedly influence that government?) Originally, that meant that only property owners could vote, or those who paid a poll tax say. From this perspective, the notion that the poor or the minority or the elderly would lack the ID to vote would not be seen as especially wrong, but would actually be a positive virtue. Only those who make the effort deserve or earn the vote.

Now the obvious controversy is this: is suffrage to be understood as universal or is it better understood as the property of those engaged however broadly in civic commerce?

Likewise, this view also exists in a certain tension with the more populist forms of conservatism. The right to voice, to able to speak one’s mind not only resists the intrusion of government, but also lies in tension with that other form of conservatism that holds to some sort of pre-qualification (property) as the entry to civic participation.

But if these offer perhaps the two conservative philosophic rationales for these sorts of laws, there is also a sadder one that colors the discussion.

The Memory of Jim Crow

The history of Jim Crow darkens this entire discussion. The historical memory of its injustice calls into question the motive of all advocates for “safe guarding the ballot.” The establishment of the racial caste system of the American South was predicated on disenfranchisement. Utilizing a variety of measures to “safeguard the ballot”, the white southern power structure  effectively muffled the political voice of black citizens. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C Van Woodward relates the impact in Lousiana. In 1896 there were 130,334 registered Negro voters, in 1904, 1,342; in 1896 Negro registrants were a majority in 26 parishes, by 1900, none (p. 85).

This effort of restricting access to the ballot continues, even after the Voter Registration Act. In the past 25 years, the State of Texas has pursued 54 separate initiatives to restrict access (all knocked down by the courts). The point is not the particulars so much as the continuing drive, the motive that exists.

The Statist perspective, Voting as a propertied right, and the history of Jim Crow present the three barriers that any so called Voter ID law must finally overcome. Whether we call them Voter Protection, Voter ID, or Safeguarding the Ballot the intent remains the same, to move away from universal suffrage to a more restricted, more socially approved electorate.


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