Democrats have been working overtime lately looking for an issue to excite their base in the same manner that Barack Obama’s symbolic candidacy and post-partisan promises of “hope” and “change” did in 2008. Some liberal pundits have sought to overcome this problem by branding their opponents with the unforgiveable sin of modern American culture: racism. That’s the motive behind the absurd “dog whistle” talk we’ve been hearing about any mention of entitlement spending and the creation of another generation of poor Americans dependent on welfare. Others are ignoring this convoluted and misleading argument and instead going directly for the throat by charging Republicans with attempting to prevent African-Americans from voting.
The main problem with this is there are no such efforts under way, and if there were, they would be both illegal and bad politics. But in order to pursue this fallacious charge, Democrats continually characterize efforts to ensure voting integrity as racist. Thus, in 2012 the requirement that a voter should present a picture ID at the polls is being treated as irrefutable evidence of skullduggery. That’s the conceit behind a disingenuous piece in the online version of the New York Times that doesn’t even bother trying to prove that voter ID is a racist plot. Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar simply assumes this is so, and then proceeds to put in a long history of attempt to suppress votes in this country. The problem with this article is not just his false assumption about voter ID but also his unconvincing attempt to conflate actual disenfranchisement with efforts by politicians to discourage supporters of their opponents from voting.
Keyssar is right to note there is a history of disenfranchisement in the United States. As in Britain, the franchise was initially restricted to property holders and those who professed the majority religion in some localities. Gradually those restrictions were discarded. But most people also know women couldn’t vote until after World War One and African-Americans were largely prevented from voting in many states by Jim Crow laws until the 1960s.
These chapters of history are unfortunate but are also closed. Anything that comes even close to restriction of the franchise is illegal. Even those laws which once required citizens to learn English in order to vote, a measure that is not quite the same thing as a racial ban but still discriminatory, are as dead as southern poll taxes intended to keep African-Americans powerless.
However, to compare voter ID laws to such legislation is absurd. In an era when you need a picture ID to drive a car, board a plane, get government benefits or do just about anything in contemporary American society, it takes an active and partisan imagination to claim asking someone who is voting to properly identify themselves is akin to Jim Crow. But one must ask if voter ID requirements are racist because they disproportionately affect the poor, how can similar restrictions anywhere else be deemed non-discriminatory?
Like most who make this allegation, Keyssar dismisses out of hand the possibility that candidates and parties cheat at elections. One would hope that this were so, but as historian he knows very well the record of American electoral corruption is just as long and sordid as that of prejudice. Mobilizing the nation’s graveyards on behalf of urban political machines is just as much a part of the fabric of our electoral history as disenfranchisement.
Stealing elections is a venerable American tradition and stretches from the colonial era to our own time. Indeed, just a few years ago it was liberals who pitched a fit when it became known the leading manufacturers of touch screen voting systems — Diebold, ESS, Sequoia, and a fourth, SAIC, Science Applications International — that had replaced traditional paper or lever machines in some localities had donated money to the GOP. At that time in the aftermath of the “hanging chad” election in Florida (which many Democrats still claim was “stolen” from them), Democrats did not think the integrity of the vote was a minor concern and acted to bar the use of some of the machines simply on the suspicion they might somehow be manipulated to benefit Republicans.
If in just the last decade distrust between the parties is so great, why should we assume neither side would stoop to attempts at getting unregistered or illegal voters to the polls (though some liberals now also claim barring felons is also racist). Given the Democratic suspicion of Republicans, why do they feign surprise or disbelief when some Republicans think the Democrats are attempting to manipulate the results via undocumented voters? Keyssar claims only the poor are disenfranchised, but when elections are not honest, everybody loses in a democracy.
It should also be added that voter suppression techniques which seek to besmirch an opposing candidate or to frame the issues in such a way as to lower the enthusiasm level of the electorate may be dirty politics but it is not the same thing as a violation of the civil rights laws. To conflate, as Keyssar does, this term with actual attempts to prevent groups from voting is intellectually dishonest.
Honest elections are the foundation of trust in the system. Keyssar is right when he claims democracy is fragile. But it cannot be sustained with the hypocrisy and false charges of racism he has seconded.