09 July 2012
Fraud vs. Suppression in Texas
Texas is one of the states that has instituted a law requiring voters to show a photo I.D. The federal government is attempting to block implementation of the law on the authority of the Voting Rights Act, but Texas authorities claim that the federal legislation does not apply because a state's responsibility to guard against fraud should not be subject to the "pre-clearance" the VRA requires of states with histories of discrimination. The government argues, as has the Democratic party consistently in recent years, that photo-I.D. laws are discriminatory because they disproportionately burden the poor. The case that commences today in a federal court is thus not just a dispute between state rights and federal authority but a partisan legal fight. Historically, the Democratic party has been more likely to be suspected of finding ways to get ineligible people to vote. The Democrats were also historically the party of vote suppression, at least in the Jim Crow South, until the great shift of the 1960s when blacks changed their allegiance from the "party of Lincoln" to the party of LBJ. Republican regimes now rankle under the scrutiny forced upon states because of past Democratic practices. As far as Democrats are concerned, Republican intentions are as bad now as the old Dixiecrats' were, while Republicans see Democrats as the same as they ever were, always out to cheat at the polls by exploiting ineligible voters. Bad faith prevails on both sides. Democrats assume that Republicans don't really take the prospect of fraud seriously but simply want to keep poor people from voting; Republicans assume that rhetorical charges of vote-suppression simply mask Democrats' dependence on fraudulent voting. Republicans seem to think that there's no such thing as vote suppression -- except when Democrats practiced it in the bad old days -- while Democrats seem to think that there's no such thing as voter fraud for anyone to worry about. To take either view for granted is to wear partisan blinkers. Partisanship in general has made the I.D. question more controversial than it ought to be. There ought to be ways to defuse the tension, the most obvious being to minimize as much as possible, if not completely, the financial burden imposed by any I.D. requirement. The situation is ironic insofar as right-wingers are the people usually presumed most likely to want to live "off the grid," or to presume that I.D. cards are a "mark of the Beast," yet left-wingers, by American electoral standards, now seem most concerned with preserving people's right to live without I.D. Objectively, the burden of compromise lays heaviest upon Republicans advocating I.D. laws. That's simply because they seek to impose an additional burden on people who've already exercised a right to vote, and in a manner that presumes guilt of fraud. It should never become more difficult for people to vote, except if you grant government a right to disfranchise people for criminal offenses. Making it more difficult for established voters to vote, no matter what your motive, makes vote-suppression charges inevitable. Leaving questions of partisan advantage out of it, the real question to ask is whether the burdens imposed by I.D. requirements outweigh the risks of fraudulent voting. It won't do for Republicans or other advocates of I.D. laws simply to deny that such laws are burdensome or complain that there's no good reason for citizens to lack I.D. If they want to persuade the public of their good-faith commitment to preventing only fraudulent voting -- and it doesn't follow that someone without I.D. is a fraudulent voter -- they have to make good-faith efforts to minimize the burden. Otherwise they're reasonably subject to suspicion that their true intent is to keep poor people, the presumed constituents of another party, from voting. Then the question becomes whether laws that have consequences favoring one political party over another are discriminatory in nature. I'd rather not go there, but none of us should let an aversion to partisanship divert us from a serious discussion of the rights and responsibilities of American voters in a fair electoral process.