Crock the Vote
By Jack Shafer
The opinions expressed are his own.
In case you haven’t heard, the 2012 presidential election is already over and the Republicans stole it. Both Rolling Stone and Mother Jones report this week that those wascally Wepublicans have already walked away with the ballot boxes.
The Rolling Stone piece (Sept. 15, 2011) finds evidence of an “unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008.” Comparing the Republican efforts to suppress the vote to the Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests erected by Dixiecrats, writer Ari Berman claims that a “dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting.” By “obstacles” Berman means new laws requiring proof of citizenship in Kansas and Alabama; the repeal of Election Day voter registration in Maine; shortened early voting periods in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia; and the presentation of government-issued ID before casting ballots in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, as well as other new voting measures.
As clampdowns go, these measures seem too anemic to support the Rolling Stone‘s hysterical headline, “The GOP War on Voting,” but it is no journalistic crime to over-promise and under-deliver on a piece, especially a political piece.
Mother Jones’s less wiggy article, by Nick Baumann, explains how Pennsylvania’s Republican state legislators are “pushing a scheme” to change the way the state’s Electoral College votes are cast from winner-take-all to winner by congressional district (two votes would go to the state-wide contest winner). The horror of the plan, Baumann writes, is that it’s legal. It’s also constitutional—Nebraska and Maine cast their votes this way, he writes, and it could cost President Barack Obama a second term in a close election.
Whatever might be said about these charges, they are certainly not “unprecedented.” Fears of a stolen election are as old as American politics and as contemporary as the last big contest. In 2008’s third presidential campaign debate, John McCain declared that ACORN was “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” In October 2008, Rolling Stone published a feature whose thesis was similar to the current piece, titled “Block the Vote: Will the GOP’s campaign to deter new voters and discard Democratic ballots determine the next president?” By the time the froth on both sides dried, nobody uncovered evidence of either an ACORN or Republican coup d’etat.
At the risk of sounding like the moderating voice of reason, I’d like to point out that the Republican efforts to “suppress the Democratic vote” aren’t quite as demonic and unfair as Rolling Stone makes them out to be. Of course, Republicans want as few potential Democratic voters to cast ballots as possible, and will shout “Vote fraud!” if that makes their case more persuasive. That’s politics. Democrats want as many potential Democratic voters to cast ballots as possible, and they don’t particularly care if those Democrats are double registered or otherwise ineligible as long as nobody finds out. That’s politics, too, a point that historian Alexander Keyssar makes repeatedly in the
2006 2000 book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.
Any effort to uncouple politics from the way that voters are registered, votes are cast, and votes are counted is foolhardy, because the whole enterprise is political and always has been. “Federalists and then Whigs tended to favor longer periods of residence,” Keyssar writes of politics in early 19th century America, “because they were wary of the unsettled and the poor and suspected that most transients would vote for Republicans or Democrats. The Democrats shared this analysis, advocating shorter residency requirements in the hope of enfranchising more of their own supporters.”
Rolling Stone makes a big deal out of the fact that the feds convicted only 86 people of voter fraud between 2002 and 2007. But the lack of prosecution doesn’t mean widespread voter fraud doesn’t exist. In 2004, journalist Bill Gifford compiled these hilarious examples of non-partisan voter fraud for Slate.
The Orlando Sentinel found that 68,000 Florida voters are also registered in Georgia or North Carolina (the only two states it checked), 1,650 of whom voted twice in 2000 or 2002. The Kansas City Star discovered 300 “potential” cases of individual voter fraud, including Kansans voting in Missouri and St. Louisans voting in both the city and the surrounding suburbs.
At the risk of sounding like a Republican, I direct you to the data collected by the United States Elections Project at George Washington University, which indicates that “suppressing” the potential Democratic vote in such Electoral College vote-rich states as California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois could be a worthy, democratic initiative. According to the Elections Project, almost 20 percent of the voting-age population in California in 2006 was ineligible to vote because of their lack of citizenship or other reasons. In Texas, the figure was 16.34 percent; in Florida, 13.47 percent; in New York, 13.21 percent; in Illinois, 9.72 percent. In the average state, about 7 percent of its voting-age population is ineligible to vote.
So when Republicans deploy their “suppressive” measures in California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois—and other places in which the ineligible are found in profusion—you can make like a Democrat and complain that their efforts are disenfranchising whole populations that have a right to vote. Or you can make like a Republican and claim that the GOP is protecting the sanctity of votes cast by the eligible by making it harder for the ineligible to register.
Or, you can make like the moderating voice of reason—me—and have it both ways, simultaneously supporting and protesting the Republicans’ war on voting.
Disclosure: The 2011 Rolling Stone article notes that the Koch brothers help fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, which designs legislation “to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.” I worked for almost three years in the early 1980s for Inquiry magazine, which was funded by the Kochs. Cast your ballot for or against this piece with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. This hand-built RSS feed rings every time a Shafer correction is filed.
PHOTO: Voters cast their ballots at the Super Suds laundry in Long Beach, California November 2, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten