07 August 2012

The bad-faith debate on voter fraud

The debate over the existence of voter fraud and the need for laws requiring voters to show photo ID has been freshly stoked by a new book that reportedly suggests that Sen. Franken of Minnesota, a Democrat, may have won his seat through fraudulent voting. The authors note that Franken's minuscule margin of victory was less than the number of people in the state who voted fraudulently, based on name-checks, because they were convicted felons. It doesn't follow that all these voters voted for Franken, or that they are ex-cons despite sharing the names. But the authors consider their concerns justified by the statistics compiled by a "traditional values" pressure group called Minnesota Majority. You can join in the game at any time. The way to play is to presume bias whenever anyone challenges your complacency -- all the while remembering that it may also be biased not to assume bias. It has been partisan practice from time immemorial to charge that close elections have been decided by fraud or by the yang to its yin, vote suppression. It's part of partisanship to believe that the other party doesn't play fair, or to be prepared to say so whether you believe it or not.

Because we live in a Bipolarchy, an objective appraisal of the question is impossible if you depend on mainstream sources aligned with one party or the other. One side presumes a consistent intent to commit fraud; the other presumes a consistent intent to suppress voting. Perceptions are complicated by perceived correlations. Requiring voter ID is presumed to discourage certain classes of people from voting who are presumed to support one party over the other. There is a common assumption that enforcing ID requirements could decide future elections. One side, the Democrats, are open in their fear of the consequences of new ID laws. The Republicans generally phrase their advocacy of these laws in terms of their respect for the integrity of the ballot, but some have been quoted making their expectations of partisan benefit plain. It doesn't follow, however, that Republicans don't sincerely believe that Democratic numbers have been bolstered by fraud. Again, it's the nature of partisanship to assume that the other side cheats. At the same time, it would seem that vote suppression would be an objective fact -- or at least an unfair burdening of many voters will be. It's this simple: if someone has been voting without having to show ID, or without having one at all, and is now required to acquire one, you've imposed a burden that didn't exist before. You may feel that the obligation should always have been in place, and that the burden objectively is not "burdensome," but in the most objective terms ID laws will make it more difficult for some people to vote than it was in the past. Unless you assume that everyone who has ever voted without ID is fraudulent, you may have difficulty justifying the added burden on the innocent majority to stop a fraudulent minority. You'd have to make an impressive if not intimidating case for the decisive effect of fraud on more than a Minnesota senatorial race. You'll be handicapped by the fact so frequently cited by Democrats, that there's little record of fraud in recent times, even if you believe, plausibly enough, that the lack of means to detect fraud make ID laws necessary in the first place.

The Republican position presumes fraud, while the Democratic position essentially denies anyone the right to presume fraud. In the middle is the voter potentially subject to an conditions on his suffrage, who should not automatically be presumed a fraudulent voter.  However, the argument against burdens is neither unanswerable or unbeatable. We impose burdens on ourselves via representative government all the time in the form of taxes, which some of us call the price of civilization. Is photo ID the price (the cost itself being subject to debate) of an unimpeachable electoral process? Partisanship and demographic polarization make an objective discussion of the question nearly impossible; bad faith clouds and toxifies the debate. We need to come to a conclusion on the right and wrong of the issue regardless of who benefits in the short term, and the conclusion should cover the entire controversy over voting rights, including the rights of convicts and the need or benefit of a national standard, at least for presidential elections. If the people decide that everyone needs photo ID, and that states can't exclude ex-cons from voting, the outcome might not appear so one-sided to partisans, though ultimately partisan perceptions should be irrelevant. Right now, however, each party pushes for the reforms or restrictions (on individual or state action) the most benefit the party. An everything-at-once approach, whether in the form of a comprehensive bill, a constitutional amendment or a constitutional convention, could eliminate partisan selectivity and clear the air for everyone. Doing so will require the people rather than the parties to take the initiative, and since it's the people's rights that are at stake you'd like to think people could get interested in comprehensive voting-rights reform. Of course, if people are interested less in people's rights than in which side wins, we may as well not bother....but it's probably be worth a try, anyway.

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