[Image courtesy of the Madison County, NY Board of Elections]
The September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Ari Berman that takes a look at recent election legislation in the states and concludes that the Republican Party is engaged in a "war on voting."
Here's how it begins:
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.
I beg to differ.
Quite simply, the current state of play in election policy can be explained by three factors that don't require belief in some nefarious partisan conspiracy to alter the outcome of the next election.
Partisan differences are policy differences
First, my experience in the field leads me to conclude that partisan differences about elections are motivated by genuine policy differences as opposed to pure electoral self-interest. If you look across the entire range of issues on which the views of the two major parties diverge, a rough pattern emerges: namely, that Republicans tend to emphasize the integrity of institutions and preserving individual opportunity, while Democrats focus on using institutions to achieve societal goals and ensuring that every individual has a fair share in the results.
Not surprisingly, this pattern repeats itself in the election sphere. Republicans tend to value the integrity of the election process; thus, they are concerned about the potential for the process to be corrupted by fraud. Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned about individuals' access to the process - and thus are concerned about anything that might interfere with the franchise.
Given these differences, it is not at all surprising to see what positions the parties take on the biggest election policy questions of our day. Voter ID laws become a struggle (usually, but not always) between Republicans who seek to prevent fraud and Democrats who fear it will block access to the ballot by otherwise qualified voters. Democrats like election-day registration and broader early voting because they expand access, while Republicans are skeptical because they are concerned about the possibility that ineligible voters will be able to taint the outcome.
In short, policy differences explain partisanship - not the other way around. In other words, a legislator doesn't favor voter ID because she is a Republican; rather, she is a Republican (in part) because she favors voter ID. Substitute "Democrat" for "Republican" and "oppose" for "favor" in the previous sentence and it's still true.
Elections (and majorities) matter
Second, because of these policy differences, we should not be surprised to see efforts to change election policy when legislative majorities change. Elections have consequences; after the dramatic partisan shifts in the wake of the 2010 elections, we should have expected the initiatives we have seen in 2011.
In some ways, what goes around comes around; some of the Democrats who decry the latest developments were likely delighted by enactment of the federal "motor voter" law in 1993 - one of the first bills introduced and enacted by a Democratic Congress and signed by new President Bill Clinton, over fierce Republican opposition. The 2010 elections - which saw the GOP capture control of many legislatures and governorships - provided a turnabout that Republicans likely see as fair play.
Moreover, it's not like the current crop of election bills suddenly appeared in 2011; for example, Republicans have been pushing voter ID for decades against Democratic resistance. The only thing that's changed is the number of votes on each side of the aisle.
Election returns aren't the only bottom line
Finally, the environment for election policy today is dramatically different than any we have ever experienced before. Specifically, states and localities are facing a crushing fiscal crisis that is forcing them to look for cost savings wherever they can find them - and elections are no exception. For example, Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center has looked extensively at early voting patterns and has been telling policymakers around the country that they are likely wasting money by opening up the voting process earlier than necessary. That research is undoubtedly motivating many of the early voting changes we are seeing across the nation.
Similarly, efforts to control outside voter registration groups are not a way to deny the vote to underrepresented communities but rather are an effort to ensure that registration applications that do come in are delivered in a timely manner that gives election officials an opportunity to verify their authenticity and update the rolls in time for Election Day.
In short, election policy is yet another area where states and localities are looking for cost savings. Partisan differences may influence the conversation - but that doesn't mean that partisanship is driving the debate.
Conclusion: Same facts, different narratives
Rolling Stone's story reflects the conventional wisdom that partisan warfare is the narrative as the 2012 campaign begins.
But what if we used some unconventional wisdom?
What if we took the same facts and built another narrative that sees an election policy debate that is not only not unexpected but completely predictable given what we know about the parties, the impact of election returns and the nation's fiscal environment?
Would it make partisan policy differences go away? No.
Might it allow policymakers on both sides to dial back the rhetoric, detoxify the debate and find areas of common ground? Maybe.
Could that then open the door to a focus on building an election system that prevents fraud while preserving access to the ballot - and serving citizens both as voters and as taxpayers? I certainly hope so.
Rolling Stone thinks the parties are "at war"; I think that the current debate is policy, not politics - and that by looking past the firefight we can actually seize opportunities to change elections for the better.
At least that's my story - and I'm sticking to it.