Voting in the Age of Supression

As states across the country continue to undermine the voting rights of their citizens, let us look briefly at one of the simplest, yet most effective barriers to the exercise of voting rights. In an effort to halt the great specter of “voter fraud” state governments have established regulations that force voters to present ID cards before being allowed to cast their ballot. While this proves to be merely an inconvenience to most, there is no doubt in my mind that many other voters find it difficult if not impossible to meet this seemingly inconsequential requirement. After all, doesn’t everyone have a driver’s licence? Not if you’re a home-bound octogenarian who hasn’t owned a car in fifteen years. What about a state issued ID card? Why would someone need that if they already have a driver’s license? Also, why should I pay the state to give me something that tells me what I already know? How about a passport? According to the US State Department, there are about 131 million valid US passports in circulation (the US population is over 320 million). Of that number, how many people actually carry their passport around with them on a daily basis? Most, I would suspect, are locked away in a safe deposit box, a desk drawer or stuffed into a little-used suitcase. In short, there are a variety of reasons someone would not have a photo ID on their person at the time of voting and, even if they did, how many of us check to make sure our cards have not expired?

Aside from the logistical questions and hurdles presented by such a demand, let us also consider the question of necessity. There is, of course, the old adage about not fixing something that’s not broken, and I believe the voting system in the US falls within this category. With the possible exception of the 2000 presidential election (a situation that was as much a result of faulty technology and politics as anything else), I have not heard of any American election that fell one way or the other because of fraud. I don’t think there has ever been an election in living memory that was tainted by ballot-stuffing, double voting, disqualified voter approvals or any of the other “concerns” expressed by the Republican governments pushing these rules. If that were the case, if there has been tremendous voter fraud, how is it that the GOP has controlled the legislature and the White House, to say nothing of general assemblies and governorships across the country? Are they the ones who have benefitted from these unscrupulous actions, or, perhaps, has there not been a problem and this is simply a smokescreen to prevent diversity of opinion and experience from translating into political power? The evidence, assuming you believe in such things, seems to point to the latter. No one has ever been able to produce a verifiable claim of widespread and/or systemic fraud against our country’s elections.

If anything, I believe the focus should not be on fraud at the polls themselves but manipulation through the internet, via an unprotected wireless signal or an especially dedicated hacking operation. No one would waste his or her time standing in line to fraudulently cast another ballot; it seems much more likely that such an act would be carried out remotely, using software vulnerabilities to create new outcome and cause widespread chaos. But we are not looking to protect the integrity of our voting technology, are we? Of course not because that would require acknowledging a weakness and Americans don’t do that. In fact, Americans don’t have weaknesses unless they are due to some individual character flaw or because some nonspecific ‘other’ has sabotaged our otherwise brilliant system. Scapegoating has long been a favorite technique of government leaders to avoid the responsibility of serious policymaking. Throwing out red herrings and erecting straw-men arguments work to insulate those in power from the real work of tackling real problems and allow them to sidestep the uncomfortable prospect of discussing and defending ideas.

With this in mind, it becomes a simple thing to see why voter suppression, disguised as election safeguards, would be a prefered tool of government officials who have to gerrymander their states to ensure favorable election outcomes and have effectively disenfranchised huge swaths of society through an appallingly harsh criminal justice system. Let us not forget that access to the ballot has always been a way for the empowered to exercise control over the powerless: the founders of the republic originally limited voting to landowning white males. Much later, black males were permitted (although violently discouraged for generations) and decades after that women were allowed to cast their votes. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that this is a recent battle — this battle has been ongoing since the concept of democracy first came to the minds of the ancients.

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