10 October 2014

When Republicans defended voting rights, and Democrats cried fraud

Recent court decisions have pushed the question of identification requirements for voters back to the forefront of U.S. politics, just in time for an election season. By now the storyline is familiar: Republicans want to require voters to show photo i.d. at polling places in order to prevent fraudulent voting; Democrats protest, while dismissing all suspicions of fraud, that Republicans simply want to make it more difficult for certain populations who are less likely to have an ID card, or the documents necessary to get one, to vote Democrat. But it wasn't always so. In the course of my research for another project, I saw that one hundred years ago this month, New York State struck down a law that had been passed by a Democratic legislature over protests from Republicans that the measure's only purpose was to keep certain people from voting. Given where Republicans and Democrats stood 100 years ago, you might expect that black votes were at stake, but in fact the Democrats were out to make life more difficult for rural voters in general. The controversial law required residents in rural communities to register in person with the local election board when they moved from one municipality to another. Democrats argued that in-person registration was necessary to prevent fraud by election workers, who in theory could add names to voting lists arbitrarily otherwise, while Republican complained that requiring registration in person imposed a hardship on farm people who would have to travel long distances to take care of the paperwork at a time when transportation options were still quite limited. It was hard enough, presumably, to take the long trip just to vote; to require an extra, earlier trip simply to register would only discourage country people from voting. I don't know on what basis the court struck down the law, but in any event it was ruled unconstitutional, and Republicans immediately calculated how many more votes they'd get in that November's elections.

At that time, in the South, Democrats found every means possible to keep black people from voting. It took a change in black voting habits for Democrats to turn from opponents to defenders of black voting rights, while Republicans seem to have learned indifference to cries of hardship when it appears necessary to suppress "fraud" at the polls. We know they're not entirely indifferent, however, given how they accused Democrats of trying to ignore votes from overseas military personnel in recent elections. It still comes down to who you want to vote. If the groups adversely impacted by photo-ID requirements didn't vote consistently Democrat, Democrats would most likely not oppose those requirements so much, but it's also true that Republicans might not press for them so much. The question isn't whether one party or another is more inclined to commit fraud. Both major parties jockey for advantage constantly, and have done so throughout their 150+ year struggle for the American electorate. Republicans have just about always accused Democrats of driving immigrants to the polls regardless of their actual entitlement to vote, while Democrats until relatively recently strove to thwart black voting, not so much because Democrats were racist (though many were) but because blacks voted Republican. If a future demographic shift in voting habits threatens to tilt the balance of power, one party will seek ways to facilitate it, and the other will seek to thwart it. Each party really is more interested in maximizing the turnout of the most loyal populations than maximizing the vote of the entire American people -- but both could probably be defeated if Americans didn't do such a good job of suppressing their own votes through ignorance, complacency, or lack of imagination. That apathy toward alternatives to the two-party system is a greater threat to democracy than any of the tricks the two parties play on each other.

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