What will make the difference in the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the Senate? Is it the unpopularity of President Obama? Or perhaps it’s the collapse of U.S. foreign policy? ObamaCare? According to the New York Times, policy may not be the crucial factor in determining whether, for example, embattled Democrat incumbent Kay Hagan retains her North Carolina seat. Rather, the Times asserts, it may be the altered rules for voting in the Tarheel State that will reduce the number of days in which North Carolinians may vote early from 17 to 10, a move that Democrats have denounced as racist in nature. But while turnout will be a crucial factor in the outcome, the notion that the amount of early voting days is a measure of a state’s commitment to voting rights or to the fight against racism is a partisan and pernicious myth.
As with their somewhat desultory efforts to exploit concerns over the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri into a rallying cry to turn out African Americans to vote for their candidates in the midterms, Democrats see allegations of racism as crucial to their efforts. That’s especially true in southern states where minorities are their key constituencies.
For the past few years, liberals have sought to assert that Republicans were doing nothing less than seeking to inaugurate a new era of Jim Crow racism by promoting voter-integrity laws that required voters to produce a picture ID to identify themselves before casting a ballot. Though most Americans believe it is nothing more than a commonsense measure, Democrats take it as an article of faith that asking someone to identify themselves by the same method required to perform virtually any transaction or to travel is racist in nature. That’s a stretch under any circumstances, but at least they can point to some statistics that show minorities are less likely to have a picture ID–though they fail to explain why they think they are less capable of obtaining a free one from the state than other citizens.
But whatever the merits of photo ID laws, the emphasis on early voting as a principle of non-racist society is baffling.
Much of the country has embraced the concept of early voting in order to broaden participation in elections. Where once the act of coming to the polls on Election Day was considered a sacred civil rite in which all should participate, many now believe that letting people vote by mail or offering opportunities to vote weeks in advance of the end of the campaign is essential to broadening the electorate.
But while one can make an argument for making voting more convenient, it’s not clear why minorities stand to benefit more from the practice than the rest of the population. Nor should mere convenience be confused with the right to vote.
It is something of a mystery as to why some Democrats seem to need gimmicks like early voting or votes by mail more than Republicans. Is it because the latter are intrinsically more invested in the system than those who feel themselves to be more marginal to society or the political establishment? Perhaps.
But the attempt to frame, as is the case in North Carolina, the contrast between 17 days of early voting and ten as the difference between an inclusive democracy committed to equality and a return to Jim Crow isn’t merely absurd; it’s a partisan smear.
To speak of that difference as a case of “voting restrictions,” as the Times refers to it in the headline of their article on the battle in North Carolina, is disingenuous. As it happens, the new rules allow the same number of hours for pre-election day voting in North Carolina as before, only not stretched out over as many days.
Early voting advocates ignore the complications that can arise from having so many people voting before the end of the campaign when candidate’s stands and statements can still influence in the outcome. With more than a third of the nation now not voting on Election Day, it must be understood that we are not all operating with the same information, a trend that is potentially more corrosive to democracy than adjustments in early voting schedules.
But even if we ignore that factor, much of this debate seems to revolve around an effort to herd as many voters into the polls before they can change their minds or lose interests in candidates. In that sense, early voting seems more partisan gimmicks—like straight party-line levers that were once common in many states—than an expansion of rights.
If liberals are really concerned about getting out the minority vote, they will devote more resources to building turnout and educating voters about the necessity of showing up at the polls. The hubbub about early voting or even voter ID seems geared more to creating a sense of grievance among minorities whose voting rights are not in question than anything else. Fomenting an attitude in which African Americans believe themselves to be discriminated against even as the polls remain wide open for them and everyone else is a partisan tactic for Democrats; not a matter of civil rights. That may get more of them to the polls to vote for Hagan and other Democrats. But it’s also designed to give them an excuse if they lose. As such, it’s a foolproof tactic for a party that knows it’s in trouble this fall.