Voting Access Restrictions: Democracy in Choppy Waters

            Like many Americans, I have followed with interest the fate of the 11 restrictive voter identification and ballot access laws recently passed by GOP majority state legislatures despite overwhelming Democratic Party opposition. Opinion polls consistently suggest a majority of U.S. citizens favor such identification requirements, despite the near complete dearth of evidence of fraud that has been used to justify their passage. Nonetheless, the courts have recently not been kind to these laws and several have been enjoined or partially or completely set-aside and will not prevent individuals from voting in the upcoming election. Severely restrictive identification statutes do remain in effect in four states, but none of those are expected to affect the coming presidential election outcome. As I have written before, many analysts have suggested that those pressing for these statutes were under no illusions that fraud was a significant issue in U.S. elections, but instead undertook these steps for the possible electoral advantage they might provide. That is, the laws were passed to accord a perceived strategic electoral advantage to their sponsoring party, and for no other reason. I have noted, too, that to the extent this is so, it represents a particularly sad turn in our politics because it suggests that a significant share of the nation’s elected leaders are now willing to take whatever steps might be helpful to secure their hold on power, irrespective of their implications for freedom or self-governance. This willingness has at least three very significant ramifications.

            First, and most obvious, if these efforts are indeed a naked ruse aimed at misleading citizens by suggesting they are addressing a real need as they effectively deny thousands of people (disproportionately minorities, the disabled, the poor and seniors) their right to vote, they abridge a central right of those citizens prevented from voting thereby. That is, if these laws deliberately target groups of voters in an attempt to ensure they do not or cannot exercise their franchise, not only do they undermine the rights of those so marked, but they have been pressed to passage in a way so as to manipulate successfully and knowingly a majority of Americans into believing that there was a legitimate problem to be addressed by such actions in the first instance. The first of these implications is obviously inimical to a vital right of self-governance for many Americans, while the second and deeply cynical consequence undoes democracy in a different way by swaying apparently uninformed voters by means of a believable fabrication. Both of these results severely undermine governance by and for the people.

            Second, to the extent the Republican Party’s ongoing campaign to place restrictions on ballot access represents a turn in that Party’s leadership to an undisciplined quest for power, irrespective of its democratic costs, the implications of the current efforts to restrict entry to the franchise could be profound for the social sinews that bind the polity. That is, if one or both major parties come to believe they can effectively deny the vote to a share of the eligible population who, in their view, do not support them sufficiently and gain the assent of a majority to do so by misleading them deliberately, we will have already slipped into a deeply treacherous situation in which some are permitted freedoms while others are not, as electoral needs appear to dictate. In this scenario little would bind leaders to those they nominally serve. There increasingly are few obstacles to prevent such usurpation and the road to still more robust adoption of such “successful tactics” will doubtless prove easier with every perceived Party “win.” That is, with each success it may be easier to deny “those people” and that “other” their rights, on no other grounds ultimately than that it appears electorally auspicious to do so.

            Finally, I find myself wondering just how it is that those pressing for these laws rationalize them to themselves, assuming they know full well what their repercussions will be for those targeted. While they are perhaps more subtle and justified differently, how do these actions differ in their essentials from the repugnant Jim Crow ballot requirements aimed at denying African-Americans their right to vote for so long? How do legislators justify to themselves voting for laws they know will de facto deny the right to vote of many citizens they are sworn to represent?

            Our Republic’s institutions do not exist to permit one or the other party to reward its partisans by devising clever ways to deny others their voting rights or freedom. Nor do we elect lawmakers to employ rhetoric deliberately cast to deceive so as to attain or to wield power. Both of these dangers now seem clearly in view and it also seems self-evident they are unlikely to be checked except by the courts in the near term and, more importantly and sustainably, by the people themselves. Unfortunately, I do not now see that the broader citizenry is even aware of the implications of this inclination among many of their partisan leaders, let alone prepared to take action to demand its redress. In this sense, American self-governance now confronts a deep and largely unacknowledged challenge that threatens to erode its very foundations. Sadly, if this is so, the U.S. citizenry does not yet appear anything other than quiescent as its capacities for self-governance are hollowed out.