Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Franchise

I've been waffling about discussing today's issue for the last month, for two reasons. One, while it's about voting, it's not about voting systems, so it's a bit off-topic. And two, it's become something of a partisan issue. On the other hand, I've made no posts since last month. So here we go!

The essential component of democracy is elections; to let the people who will be affected by the law decide the law (or at least, representatives who will do so.) Give people a choice over the government, and they will be more satisfied with that government's choices. That's why we have only, and always, expanded the franchise; to African Americans, to women, to 18 year-olds. Even if you disagree with the choices another voter makes, it is essential to democracy to allow them to make that choice. Which is why I am disgusted at the numerous efforts around the country to blatantly disenfranchise groups of voters because of their expected partisan voting habits.

I am, of course, speaking about the attempts, almost exclusively* in Republican-controlled state houses, to enact legislation that would impose stringent requirements, or strengthen the existing requirements, for government-issued photo identification before a voter is allowed to exercise their right to vote. These bills are nominally being introduced to combat voter fraud, and yes, voter fraud is something any democracy should be worried about. But in modern America, it is not a grave problem (a rough estimate finds that there is one alleged case of voter fraud for every 100,000 eligible voters, and only approximately one in 40 of those leads to a conviction. That's one in 4 million, and there are only slightly over 210 million eligible voters in the United States; do the math.) But worse, the laws being proposed do very-little to absolutely-nothing to prevent the majority of fraud cases (most fraudulent votes are cast by election insiders, and outsiders who vote fraudulently typically do so via absentee ballots or through multiple registrations at different polling places, neither of which can be caught by checking ID.)

Rather, the effect of these laws will primarily be to prevent innocent poor, minority, and youth voters from voting; all groups which tend to vote for Democrats. A generous estimate would be that 3,000 legitimate voters will be turned away at the polls for each case of fraud that these laws would stop, and the true number is possibly orders of magnitude higher.

In any functioning democracy, we will disagree. But attempting to win by reducing the electorate cuts at the very essence of democracy.

(Numbers based off various articles from The Voting News's "voter fraud" topic.)

*Rhode Island's law, although passed through a Democratically-controlled house, is much milder than the other laws pushed forward this year. It does not go into effect until 2014 (i.e., will not affect the next presidential election), it allows a much broader class of documents to count as valid identification, and rather than turn voters away it allows them to cast a provisional ballot.