Commentary Magazine


Topic: voting rights

The Left’s War on Informed Voters

The founding generation was keenly aware of the fact that the public they had empowered to shape the destiny of their new republic might be primarily composed of simpletons.

“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” wrote James Madison in an 1822 letter advocating expanded access to publicly funded education in order to ameliorate the condition he outlined. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.” For the left, it increasingly seems, knowledge is overrated. Read More

The founding generation was keenly aware of the fact that the public they had empowered to shape the destiny of their new republic might be primarily composed of simpletons.

“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” wrote James Madison in an 1822 letter advocating expanded access to publicly funded education in order to ameliorate the condition he outlined. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.” For the left, it increasingly seems, knowledge is overrated.

The Father of the Constitution and America’s fourth president was not alone in fearing the world that the willfully ignorant would vote themselves. Of course, the Constitution’s drafters also understood that not everyone would participate in the system they had crafted even if they were eligible to do so. Either out of disgust, or indifference, or simple ignorance in the affairs of state, the Founders afforded to Americans the freedom to disengage from the political system.

“Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread,” Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin averred. It would be a mistake to presume that this remark is meant as a disparagement. In many ways, it is a complimentary observation that many Americans prioritize matters that are of more relevance to their daily experience than the trivia occupying the minds of policymakers in a far-flung national capital.

“[P]olitical ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people,” Somin added. “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example).”

For all their wisdom, the Founders were not especially fond of enfranchisement. Subsequent generations of Americans have sought to correct for this over-caution and most municipalities now err on the side of inclusion when it comes to voting rights. Great wars and incredible social upheaval was endured so that the right of African-Americans, women, and those of military service age to vote was enshrined in the Constitution. In general, Americans are supportive of extending the right to vote to those who are of majority age and are stakeholders in the system.

Recently, however, the left has become infatuated with conflating the rights associated with enfranchisement with the exercise of that franchise. This is a fallacy. Of late, progressives have embraced extending voting rights to demographics with a dubious grasp on civics and often conflate choosing not to participate in the electoral process with being prevented from doing so.

“Lowering the voting age to 16 in [San Francisco] is not about redesigning adulthood but redesigning civic participation,” declared San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos on Twitter with the accompanying hashtag “#Vote16SF.” That’s right: A proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in that city has been tabled until next year when city council members could approve putting the measure on the November, 2016 ballot.

The Bay Area isn’t the only progressive enclave expanding the franchise out to those who might not have a sound command of the issues. While a variety of American municipalities have in the past expanded the right to vote out to non-citizen permanent residents, the right to vote has primarily been exclusively reserved for those who are citizens or have achieved legal status. Until recently, that is. This year, the New York City council drafted a measure making it just one of eight municipalities (six in Maryland and the seventh the city of Chicago) to extend the right to vote in local or school board elections to illegal immigrants.

“Noncitizen voting would probably enhance the power of Democrats — not that they particularly need it in this city,” Baruch College professor Doug Muzzio said of the measure that was too extreme even for the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

But many progressives view expanding access to the ballot as a half measure. Full enfranchisement can only be realized if participation in the electoral process is made mandatory. “Other countries have mandatory voting,” President Barack Obama said in March, demonstrating once again his uniquely tenuous grasp on the concept of American exceptionalism. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.”

The president added that countries like Australia and Belgium have instituted compulsory voting, and the failure to participate in elections can result in fines or even prison sentences. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”

Obama is not advocating for expanded access but compulsory participation. He has defined a freedom as complete only if it is enjoyed at gunpoint.

The president’s statement is of a kind with a comment made by Hillary Clinton who recently endorsed the far-left’s hobbyhorse of mandatory and automatic voter registration.

“The need to register to vote is just about the most modest restriction on ballot access I can think of, which is why it works so well as a democratic filter: It improves democratic hygiene because the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots,” National Review’s Daniel Foster wrote in opposition to Clinton’s proposal. “If you want an idea of what political discourse looks like when you so dramatically lower the burden of participation that civic idiots elect to join the fray, I give you the Internet.”

Interestingly, Foster added that he favors expanding voting rights to a class that might want to vote but has been denied that privilege: former convicts. Championing the voting rights of some ex-cons who long ago paid their debts to society is a measure that has been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. And while expanding this group’s access to the polls would likely augment Democratic vote totals, it has been embraced by GOP icons like Senator Rand Paul because they believe these individuals are endowed with the civic virtue required of a voter.

One could argue that expanding the right of minors and illegal immigrants to vote and instituting a policy of mandatory voter registration are designed to increase access to the ballot for those who want to participate, but the president let the veil slip when he endorsed frog marching those reluctant voters to the polls. None of this is about enfranchisement; it’s about enhancing one party’s political clout unburdened by having to sell their policies to an informed electorate. By giving groups like minors, non-citizens, and the disinterested access to the ballot, the left has inadvertently confessed that they are increasingly unable to pitch their policy preferences to the system’s traditional stakeholders. Rather than address this deficiency, they have determined that new stakeholders must undergo forcible ascension.

It is increasingly becoming taboo to stand in defense of those who take the rights and demands of citizenship seriously, educate themselves, and endure basic hardships like registering to vote and knowing when Election Day is. It will never be popular to oppose extending voting rights to what Daniel Foster calls, perhaps uncharitably, “civic idiots,” but there is something to be said for privileging the informed voter.

If the left had their way, the informed and civic-minded would have their vote diluted by the newly enfranchised 16-year-old undocumented immigrant who is only voting in order to avoid paying a penalty. That is the true injustice.

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Hillary Needs a Faux War on Voting Rights

Hillary Clinton was in Texas on Thursday doing what she usually does: not taking questions from the press while seeking ways to energize the Democratic base. In this case, her focus on highlighting a key issue for Democrats: voting rights. But contrary to the overheated rhetoric she and other members of her party are employing, this has little to do with fighting actual efforts to stop minorities from voting and everything to do with creating a sense of crisis, particularly among African-Americans, that Republicans are seeking to put them “back in chains.” The main focus of this effort is to invalidate laws requiring voters to have photo IDs while seeking to institute weeks-long periods of early voting. Neither of those measures has much to do with ensuring that Jim Crow never returns. To the contrary, the effort to hype this into a fight for racial equality is about Clinton’s fear that the African-Americans that turned out in record numbers to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama won’t show up for her next year. And if takes a cynical waving of the bloody shirt of the Civil Rights era to convince them that Republicans are out to get them, Clinton is demonstrating that she will stoop as low as it takes to get blacks sufficiently alarmed about a possible GOP victory in 2016.

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Hillary Clinton was in Texas on Thursday doing what she usually does: not taking questions from the press while seeking ways to energize the Democratic base. In this case, her focus on highlighting a key issue for Democrats: voting rights. But contrary to the overheated rhetoric she and other members of her party are employing, this has little to do with fighting actual efforts to stop minorities from voting and everything to do with creating a sense of crisis, particularly among African-Americans, that Republicans are seeking to put them “back in chains.” The main focus of this effort is to invalidate laws requiring voters to have photo IDs while seeking to institute weeks-long periods of early voting. Neither of those measures has much to do with ensuring that Jim Crow never returns. To the contrary, the effort to hype this into a fight for racial equality is about Clinton’s fear that the African-Americans that turned out in record numbers to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama won’t show up for her next year. And if takes a cynical waving of the bloody shirt of the Civil Rights era to convince them that Republicans are out to get them, Clinton is demonstrating that she will stoop as low as it takes to get blacks sufficiently alarmed about a possible GOP victory in 2016.

As the New York Times points out, the Democrats tactic is to target every state that has passed a voter ID law or that seeks to pull back on early voting and to tie them up with litigation so as to ensure that nothing impedes their efforts to turn out their base. But the legal controversies about voter ID or early voting are actually second to the political purpose of this issue.

Voter ID opponents are fond of arguing that there are few cases in which mass voter fraud has been proven. That’s true, but that talking point is undermined by the realization that, in states and cities where parties control law enforcement and election commissions, even the most suspicious voting patterns are not investigated. Of course, assuming that there is no such thing as voter fraud forces us to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. But even if we accept the premise that efforts to prevent fraud are more about possible rather than actual threats to the integrity of the vote, the same argument can be turned around on liberal opponents of such efforts.

Whatever one might think about voter integrity laws — and the vast majority of Americans have always believed they are both reasonable and legal — the notion that they are a threat to voting rights is a lie made out of whole cloth. In a nation where photo IDs are required for virtually any business transaction, travel, or interaction with the government, it stands to reason that voters ought to be able to meet the same minimal requirement of self-identification. The analogy made between discriminatory Jim Crow laws and voter ID are bogus because the former was about obtaining a fraudulent outcome while the latter is about ensuring the opposite result.

It is true that statistics can be found to show that fewer minorities have photo IDs than other groups but, as liberal blogger and election guru Nate Silver pointed out in 2012, there is no reason to believe the vast majority of those who fail to make the effort to obtain such a document from the state are also willing to inconvenience themselves to register or vote. The same year a Washington Post poll found that nearly two-thirds of African-Americans questioned supported voter ID laws while three-quarters of all Americans agreed. There is no proof that anyone who really wants to vote is being turned away or stopped from doing so. Instead of trying to prevent states from ensuring the integrity of the vote, or damning a system of voting in which the body politic would decide the outcome in a common time frame that would encompass the entire campaign rather than merely a portion of it, Democrats should be concentrating their efforts on getting more people registered and out to vote.

Minorities are no more incapable of getting a photo ID or showing up on Election Day (or a shortened period of voting) than anyone else. None of the measures Clinton and other Democrats are protesting bears the slightest resemblance to segregationist tactics. Both parties are always seeking to game the system, and Clinton’s proposal for automatic national registration, a scheme that sounds better in principle than it might be in practice, should be understood in that context. Seen in that light, the idea that this issue is a civil rights crisis or a threat to voting rights is a farce.

Why then are Democrats hyping a non-existent crisis? The same reason they sought to create the impression that Republicans were waging a non-existent “war on women” in 2012 and 2014. Creating the impression that African-Americans are being targeted by Republicans is the only way she can be sure that this most Democratic of demographic groups will turn out in the numbers she needs to win next year, even though Obama will no longer be on the ballot. If doing so means cloaking herself in the mantle of Rosa Parks and making wild, unsubstantiated claims about blacks being deprived of the right to vote, then so be it. But whether or not this faux “war on voting” works, and it might, let no one misunderstand her purpose. This is about politics and manipulating the fears of African-Americans, not a genuine threat to their rights or those of any other voting group.

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Is Early Voting a Right or a Dem Tactic?

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.

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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.

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If Cochran Loses, It Isn’t a Revolution

Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

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Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

If you watch some of the ads being aired in the state as well as listen to the comments from many in the state’s party establishment, it’s easy to see why so many people are viewing it in this manner. The race turned ugly months ago and has gotten progressively nastier after McDaniel fell a hair short of a clear majority in the initial primary forcing today’s runoff with Cochran. Some of the Republican primaries that took place earlier in the year were seen as indicating that the Tea Party had run its course and that moderates were still in control of the GOP. But the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary earlier this month and the prospect of McDaniel winning today has the party establishment back in panic mode talking about revolutions and worrying that a few more such defeats for their preferred candidates will doom the Republicans.

The talk about the death of the Tea Party was not so much premature as it was misleading since virtually all Republicans now subscribe—or at least pay lip service—to the cause of limited government and scaling back the nation’s addiction to taxes and spending. But as in the Cantor race, where a national figure found himself out of touch with his party’s grass roots, what’s going in Mississippi isn’t so much a revolution as it is the oldest story in politics. No one, not even longtime incumbents who act like university professors with tenure, is assured of victory when faced with a spirited challenger who is a fresh face.

This is a basic political truth that a lot of the so-called Republican establishment, especially in Mississippi, seem to have forgotten. Just because Thad Cochran has been in the Senate for 42 years doing more or less what he thought his constituents wanted him to do doesn’t mean that he hasn’t passed his political expiration date. Voters get tired of the same old thing in the same old package and sometimes prefer the younger, more dynamic voice. They also sometimes change their minds about what’s really important.

Cochrane has spent his career helping his state use the federal government as an ATM as Mississippi gets far more money from Washington than it pays into the system. But even in a state that has clearly benefitted from Congress’ out-of-control spending habits it is possible for voters to think this isn’t the way to run a railroad. Cochran still doesn’t seem to understand that bringing home the bacon isn’t a guarantee of reelection and even speaks at times as if he thinks its unfair that some in his party hold his role in the expansion of government power against him.

In short, what may be happening in Mississippi isn’t so much the Deep South version of the storming of the Bastille as it is the very American ritual of voters throwing out a politician who has lost touched with his base. Doing so doesn’t so much indicate that Republicans are getting extreme as it does that Cochran, as opposed to other longtime incumbents—like Wyoming’s Mike Enzi—who have maintained their grasp of local political realities, stayed too long in the fray. Like all last hurrahs, the leave taking may be painful for all involved but the end of the story is inevitable. McDaniel’s victory won’t mean his party has gone over the edge. Nor will it, despite Democratic hopes, necessarily put this ultra-red state in play this fall. But it will show that the establishment should have nudged Cochran out rather than going down fighting with him.

That said, there is one caveat to be mentioned in any discussion of this race and whether a McDaniel victory will hurt his party. Cochran has cynically attempted to get black Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him today. I doubt he will have much success in doing so, but the reports about the McDaniel camp setting up poll watchers to prevent voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary from taking part in the GOP runoff is potential political dynamite. If any of McDaniel’s Tea Party supporters are seen to be harassing blacks trying to vote today in Mississippi of all places, the Republican Party will never live it down. If McDaniel has any brains, he will tell his people to stand down and to avoid interfering with anyone trying to vote. If he doesn’t, the optics will be so bad that it will not only affect that state’s politics but that of the entire country.

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Voting Rights and Proof of Citizenship

Liberals are expressing outrage today about the court ruling that a federal agency is required to help Kansas and Arizona ensure that those registering to vote are citizens. The case decided in a U.S. district court in Wichita revolved around the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s decision to deny the requests from the two states that proof of citizenship be added to a national voter registration form when distributed in Kansas and Arizona. Judge Eric F. Melgren rightly ruled that the agency had no authority to tell the states their requests were invalid. He noted that the decision by the election commission to deny the states’ requests was “unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority.” This is a phrase that could well be applied to a great many other Obama administration decisions and executive orders.

In its ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that only Congress could determine the rules for voting in federal elections. But significantly, it also determined that states had the right to demand proof of citizenship in state and local elections. The federal registration form only asks those registering to affirm that they are citizens. Kansas and Arizona want those seeking to vote to prove it and unless a higher court overrules Melgren, that principle has upheld.

While this case is being largely viewed as part of the ongoing debate about illegal immigration, it should also be understood as integral to the equally contentious question of whether states may require potential voters to produce photo ID. As such, liberals and Democrats are worried that the decision will impact this year’s election. But those arguing against the ruling need to answer the same question that voter ID opponents do their best to avoid: what is wrong, let alone illegal, about asking a voter to produce proof of their identity?

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Liberals are expressing outrage today about the court ruling that a federal agency is required to help Kansas and Arizona ensure that those registering to vote are citizens. The case decided in a U.S. district court in Wichita revolved around the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s decision to deny the requests from the two states that proof of citizenship be added to a national voter registration form when distributed in Kansas and Arizona. Judge Eric F. Melgren rightly ruled that the agency had no authority to tell the states their requests were invalid. He noted that the decision by the election commission to deny the states’ requests was “unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority.” This is a phrase that could well be applied to a great many other Obama administration decisions and executive orders.

In its ruling on Arizona’s controversial immigration law last year, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that only Congress could determine the rules for voting in federal elections. But significantly, it also determined that states had the right to demand proof of citizenship in state and local elections. The federal registration form only asks those registering to affirm that they are citizens. Kansas and Arizona want those seeking to vote to prove it and unless a higher court overrules Melgren, that principle has upheld.

While this case is being largely viewed as part of the ongoing debate about illegal immigration, it should also be understood as integral to the equally contentious question of whether states may require potential voters to produce photo ID. As such, liberals and Democrats are worried that the decision will impact this year’s election. But those arguing against the ruling need to answer the same question that voter ID opponents do their best to avoid: what is wrong, let alone illegal, about asking a voter to produce proof of their identity?

The answer from the left is twofold. On the one hand, they continue to assert that there is no such thing as voter fraud in the United States. On the other, they claim that requiring voter ID and now proof of citizenship disproportionately affects the poor, the elderly, and all those who might not have proper identification even though they are U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote.

Though widely repeated, the first claim is preposterous. Voter fraud is hard to detect (especially in districts where the legal authorities are affiliated with parties that hope to benefit from illegal votes). Assuming that the lack of prosecutions for such crimes is due to its nonexistence is a proposition that requires us to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. Protecting the integrity of the vote is vital to the defense of democracy. Treating measures designed to ensure that only those who are registered or citizens are voting as political ploys rather than reasonable measures supported by the vast majority of Americans is absurd.

It is true that voter ID or proof of citizenship might inconvenience some legal voters. But states that have passed such laws also have provided citizens with means of obtaining alternatives to driver’s licenses or lost passports. The point is, anyone who is entitled to vote and wants to can almost always find a way to do so legally.

Voting should not be made onerous, but there is something slightly disingenuous about the arguments claiming that a requirement for a voter ID or proof of citizenship is a racist plot to deny the franchise to minority groups. Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans, including minorities, think there is nothing unreasonable about being asked to produce the same kind of ID that is required to purchase prescriptions, cigarettes, beer, perform the simplest bank transaction, or board an airplane when doing something that is arguably a lot more important, like voting.

There’s little doubt that most Americans are just as dubious about the idea that proof of citizenship is a minor detail that should be ignored by authorities in charge of voting. Whatever your opinion about immigration reform or the rights of illegals, if Democrats think they can rally public opinion around the notion that the government should not interfere with non-citizens attempting to vote, they are taking a stance that is as indefensible as it is politically unpopular. A state that is indifferent to non-citizens who commit fraud to vote in effect denies legal voters meaningful exercise of the franchise/right to vote.

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