Voting Rights As a Values Issue

Speaking of people who do and don’t want other people to vote, TAP’s Jamelle Bouie makes an interesting and important point about the arguments the Left and Right deploy on voting rights issues:

So far, liberals have devoted their time to showing the rarity of in-person voter fraud—the kind ostensibly prevented by voter ID—and the low likelihood that it would affect the outcome of an election. Tactically, this makes a lot of sense. The push for voter ID includes stories of massive voter fraud that play on public distrust toward government. If you can counter those stories with facts, you can make people think twice about implementing an additional burden to voting.

Strategically, however, it’s a weak approach. Conservatives benefit from the the fact that their position sounds reasonable—if identification is required to buy beer and drive cars, then why isn’t it required for elections? Everyone agrees that voting is one of the most important things you can do as an ordinary citizen, and the conservative argument is that we should make it more secure from fraud.

As far as I can tell, liberals don’t have an effective response to this. Debunking the myth of voter fraud doesn’t address the normative point that we ought to protect the integrity of the vote, regardless of whether fraud is likely.

Jamelle compares the argument over voting rights to the argument over torture, where liberals also tended to use “efficacy” arguments instead of “values” arguments, and essentially lost public opinion. I’m not sure about the analogy–part of the problem with the torture issue is that Americans don’t tend to extend the Golden Rule of their own values to foreigners or terrorism suspects. But I do agree that liberals should exhibit some moral heat to shift the question of impediments to voting from a “why not?” proposition to “why?” Anecdotes about law-abiding minority citizens who had to fight to win the right to vote and are now in danger of losing it all over again are very powerful.

Bouie offers one other observation worth repeating:

Voter-identification laws have a hugely disproportionate effect on minorities, young people, the elderly, and the poor. These are the people most likely to live at the margins of American life, and as such, the least likely to have access to proper identification. They’re also targets for other conservative attacks—on the welfare state, on public education, and on income security for retirees. All of this is evidence that Republicans are preparing for a period of zero-sum politics, where—in a world of slow growth—both sides fight to maintain their share of a shrinking pie. It’s “job creators” versus everyone else.

In other words, to the extent the “war on voting” is part of a broader us-versus-them effort to convince Americans they literally can’t afford to extend equal rights (or for that matter, the Golden Rule) to other Americans, the percentage of people who are persuadable on moral grounds could significantly decline. At some point progressives may have to stop trying to win arguments, and simply win elections in order to preserve the ability to win elections in the future.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.