26 September 2012

Vote suppression is relative

A right-wing conspiracy is afoot to keep people from voting in an upcoming national election. The opposition is passionately opposed, going so far as to stage hunger strikes to protest changes in election law.

Hunger strikes? You hadn't heard about that in all the hubbub over requiring voters to show photo I.D. in some states. But that's because the hunger strikes aren't taking place here in the U.S. They're taking place in Hungary, but the story's basically the same, as the opponents of the new law tell it. As far as they're concerned the government wants to keep people from voting. How will this be done? By requiring them to register to vote.

The government justifies the measure by noting that registration will enable Hungarians living abroad to vote, when previously the nearest thing to mandatory I.D. for Magyars was having a native soil address. But from the opposition point of view, as with Democrats in the U.S., any measure setting an additional precondition for would-be voters can only be intended to reduce turnout. Understandably, opponents question why people who were presumed legal voters should have to do anything extra before voting again.

In the U.S., I doubt whether anyone would consider merely requiring people to register a plot to suppress turnout. But one study, cited in the same column in which I learned about the Hungarian situation, notes that existing registration requirements depress U.S. turnout by as much as 10%. The more hurdles you have to jump before you can vote, the fewer people will bother jumping. Any one hurdle might be enough to demoralize someone, even if no one considers registering an unreasonable requirement. Victoria Bassetti, the op-ed columnist, compares the U.S. unfavorably with nations where the state automatically registers citizens to vote, presumably by using a census as a database. On the other hand, many of those countries also issue national identification cards and expect those automatically-registered people to show them if they want to vote. But since governments, in those cases, take the initiative of issuing the cards, rather than requiring people to apply for them, the objections raised by Americans to I.D. requirements wouldn't apply.

Realistically, no one should expect to walk into a polling place without any credentials and be allowed to vote. Most Americans don't consider registration burdensome, but that's because they're used to it. Will they grow accustomed to showing I.D. as well? Only time will tell, but in any country it seems reasonable to require that changes in election law not take effect in the same year that they're enacted. Politicians should not risk the appearance of trying to influence the outcome of the immediate election, and citizens should be granted adequate time in good faith to comply with new requirements. Hungary might teach us that any precondition imposed upon voters could seem unreasonable depending on past experience and present suspicions, but it should also remind us that democracy, especially in its representative or republican form, has always been a matter not just of who actually shows up, but also of who determines who will show up.

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