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Unconventional Wisdom: A Different View of the "War on Voting"

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[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.


  • Are you equating motor voter, a legitimate way to build an accurate LIST of voters and to encourage voting amid drivers license holders, with voter ID, a radical obstacle to voting or having one's vote counted that is based on negligible instances of fraud? I'm sorry - this post is just way off. Pure policy differences... I don't buy it. Just like at the laws that have been passed and the statements that have been made in Ohio. Not even all Republicans are on board because these so-called policies are no good from any ideological vantage point. They're indefensible.

  • Thanks for your comment.

    I do think motor voter and voter ID are equivalent in that they are "dog whistles" - almost universally loved by members of one party and loathed by members of the opposition. I also think that both of them are likely overrated by their supporters in terms of how well they achieve their desired goals ... but that's a post for another day.

    Do come back often - it's nice to have someone to keep me honest!

  • And yes I know that motor voter also requires registration efforts at over places such as public assistance offices. But again - it's just making a list. Parties still have to work on those voters through campaigns, still have to turn them out to vote. It's not like NVRA makes them turn in a ballot to get their check. In conclusion - Democratic election policies are clearly defensible. Many Republican elections policies are absolutely indefensible. To me, it's clear those are driven by desire for partisan advantage.

  • Thanks Doug. Whatever we call it, I am hoping this "war" or "policy disagreement" will have the unintended effect of stirring people up and getting them out to vote. :)

  • I find it hard to believe that members of either party are making principled policy choices based on general values that are not influenced by partisan considerations about electoral outcomes. Are you saying it's essentially just coincidence that the parties' positions reflect their electoral interests? I think that really strains credibility. You appear to have more confidence in politicians' motives than most folks.

  • Doug,

    Sure, Democrats and Republicans may both have ideological as well as partisan reasons for their positions in this debate. Who would dispute that?

    But that doesn't make the two sides symmetrical -- particularly if you happen to be a marginal voter, e.g. a voter in an urban area without a car or a driver's license, etc. For an individual voter, the question of whether you actually get to cast a ballot is a civil rights issue, an individual rights issue. I don't think it really matters which parties might or might not view it as in their interests (whether partisan or ideological) to allow you to vote. The question is whether you get to vote, or not.

    And so, frankly, I find it pretty shocking to hear you posit "preserving individual opportunity" as a Republican value in this debate! In the case of voting, only one side in the access-versus-integrity debate is limiting individual voters' opportunity to vote. And I think someone in your position ought to be able to step back from the partisan ideologies and acknowledge that. Just because Democratic officials might care about something for a partisan reason, that doesn't mean it's not a civil right.

  • An interesting take on the issues. I'd just like to make two points:

    1. If election costs are a concern in this age of fiscal crunch, Republicans and Democrats alike should be wary of costly voter ID rules - which to my understanding can cost millions of dollars in free IDs for potential voters in order to stay within legal and constitutional bounds. It would be inconsistent for Republicans to justify reducing early voting by its cost savings (no argument here), while ignoring the costs of voter ID. (Considering especially the trends of early voters and those potentially hindered from voting by voter ID to vote Democrat)

    2. If the partisan differences were genuine policy differences rather than pure electoral self-interest, shouldn't we expect Republicans to be open-minded about the evidence on the lack of in-person voter fraud? That such evidence seems to be ignored by Republican legislators and secretaries of state in the push for voter ID seems perhaps inconsistent with the "policy difference" interpretation of the facts.

    There are of course also cases like the Texas ID law which allows gun permits to count as ID but not state college IDs. These seem to suggest partisan motives to me.

  • Doug:
    So you would like us to believe, for example, that Scott Gessler has a greater concern for election fraud than Democrats, that his genuine policy interest in voting integrity comes before his GOP party loyalty? If so, there is a bridge in Colorado that maybe I could sell you.

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