The Trouble with Voting

After yesterday’s Voting Rights Act decision, Chuck Todd says:

Voting in general is a mess. A functional Washington would see today’s decision as an opportunity to do a big voting fix. But… Well…

I think this is almost completely the wrong way to look at it.

I talk a fair amount about what I see as a dysfunctional Republican Party. But I don’t think that “Washington” is dysfunctional in general. And to the extent that it is (e.g. the executive branch nominations process), that’s not the problem with voting.

Dysfunctional, to me, is about…well, it’s about not being able to function. So things such as the majority party in the House repeatedly bringing things to the floor and failing to pass them. That fits. More generally, an inability to make choices that achieve one’s goals. For example, I don’t think most House Republicans really wanted the series of deadline crises they forced in the last Congress; they just couldn’t find a way to avoid it. It’s dysfunctional, too, to believe things that are not true — to the extent that Republicans really believed the “unskewed polling” idea in 2012, or believe now that IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was responsible for the 2012 election results, that’s dysfunction.

But not every disagreement is a sign of “dysfunction.” In particular, on voting what we have isn’t dysfunction; it’s radically different preferences. Voting is a “mess” because the parties disagree about how easy voting should be, and there’s no obvious compromise available — that is, voting will either be easy or difficult, and what will determine it will mainly be partisan strength.

The one part of this where Todd may be correct is on tabulation — neither party has a general preference for slow counts, and I don’t think either party has a preference for or interest in inaccurate counts. So to the extent that’s a problem, he’s right about it. But one party very plainly does want long lines in the polling places in some precincts; does want registration to be cumbersome; does want additional hurdles at polling places; does, in short, want to make voting difficult. As far as I’m concerned, that’s unfortunate, but please don’t blame it on “Washington” not being “functional.”

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.