On the same day when a Pennsylvania judge denied petitioners an injunction against a new photo-ID requirement for voters I received a begging letter from the American Civil Liberties Union warning that "America stands on the verge of a terrible outrage." The ACLU wants my money so it can "stop widespread and insidious efforts to deny people the right to participate in the 2012 elections" through "voter suppression legislation ... that would block the voting rights of African-American, elderly, young and disabled voters." Without naming it, the mailing describes a multistate conspiracy to suppress voting "in the very same states that experienced high rates of minority voter turnout in 2008." These efforts extend beyond photo-ID requirements to encompass stricter regulation of voter-registration campaigns and the curtailment of early or absentee voting opportunities. "Left unchallenged, these laws could take the right to vote away from people who've been voting in elections all their lives," the letter warns, "Every single person who loses the right to vote takes our nation a giant step backwards."
The letter reminds readers that "the ACLU is a non-partisan organization" and "we never take sides in elections." While I'm sure the organization has never endorsed candidates for offices, the latter quote doesn't prove the other. Republicans probably haven't believed the non-partisan claim for some time; their propaganda often portrays the ACLU as part of the enemy camp, domestic or global. The stand taken by the ACLU on "voter suppression," though well within its civil-liberties mandate, is sure to throw their non-partisan assertion further into question. Given the almost universal assumption that passage of the controversial "anti-fraud" measures will benefit one party and harm another, and given the barely-concealed assumption that the main intent of all such measures is to reduce the vote for President Obama, is it plausible, or honest, for the civil-liberties union to maintain its non-partisan pretense?
In a way, the ACLU may manage paradoxically to salvage its non-partisan image by completely ignoring the other side of the current dispute. The word fraud appears nowhere in the four pages of the begging letter. At first glance that may be the smoking-gun proof of the letter's partisan bias, or at least a damning failure to take seriously the principal stated concern of photo-ID proponents. It's just possible, however, that by steadfastly refusing to recognize the Republican party's rationale for alleged vote-suppression the ACLU absolves itself of partisanship in opposing GOP measures. At the very least, the group can avoid echoing the Democratic talking-point that there ain't no such thing as voter fraud. Whether executive director Anthony D. Romero believes in voter fraud or not becomes irrelevant. As well, by strictly refusing to identify "voter suppression" legislation as Republican in origin, the organization can deny that it's trying to protect one major party from the other. The denial won't be very convincing for some readers, given the letter's emphasis on 2008 as a reference point, but the ACLU's legal eagles can at least say that the letter doesn't accuse the Republican party literally of trying to rig or steal the 2012 elections. Instead, the civil-liberties union can fall back on the apparently objective position from which ID requirements and other measures look like vote suppression. That is, if you make it more difficult for anyone who has already voted to vote in the future, you can't help but look like you're curtailing people's voting rights. From that admittedly simplistic perspective the burden of justification for making voting more difficult for anyone becomes greater than some proponents want to acknowledge. That doesn't make the case for ID laws impossible; the Pennsylvania judge determined that the new requirement wasn't unreasonably burdensome, claiming that remedies are provided for people who are eligible to vote under state and federal law yet lack ID and that all such people have ample time between now and November to get ID or take advantage of other options. Critics can still decry any additional burden imposed on an established voter, and partisan critics have a right to continue questioning the motives behind the imposition of those burdens. The ACLU falls somewhere in the middle between partisanship and an abstract if not objective commitment to making as easy for presumed-legitimate voters as possible. If it can't help appearing partisan to question the timing of legislation, as the letter does, then let's not go so far in our aversion to the American Bipolarchy that we deny that on some questions one party can be right about another. In the current case, it may even be true that both parties are right about each other. But until the Republicans can make a civil-liberties or individual-rights case for making it more difficult for some people to vote this fall, they should not be surprised if the ACLU, again, appears biased against them.