I have written this cover piece for the Sacramento Bee’s Sunday Forum section. It begins:
On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in what is expected to be a nail-bitingly close presidential election. Indeed, we may wake up Wednesday morning, as voters did in 2000 and 2004, not knowing who won. If we are extremely unlucky, the election will be so close that it will go to a recount and possibly to the courts. The state whose votes are pivotal to the election outcome – Ohio, Florida, who knows? – will see its election process go under a microscope with full dissection in real time over Twitter and Facebook. It would get very ugly very quickly.
If the election comes down to the wire in this way, and if Mitt Romney ekes out a win, then a series of election changes and administrative actions pursued by Republican legislatures and election officials, as well as challenges pursued by tea party activists, may prove to have given him the winning margin. While crass political calculation is part of the explanation for Republican pursuit of these tough new voting rules, there is also a deeper philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats over the nature of voting and democracy, a divide that the most recent skirmishes in the voting wars have laid bare.
Whether or not Republicans are genuinely concerned about voter fraud – and if they were, the first thing they should do is get rid of absentee ballots, which would eliminate the lion’s share ofvoter fraud issues – a voter fraud rationale cannot explain recent Republican cutbacks on early voting.
In Ohio, Doug Preisse, chair of the Franklin County Republican Party and elections board member, offered the Columbus Dispatch a different explanation for his vote against extended weekend early voting: “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban – read African American – voter-turnout machine. … Let’s be fair and reasonable.”
But Republican cutbacks on voting go beyond the naked political calculation to a philosophical divide with Democrats over the nature of voting and elections. To many Republicans, voting is an exercise in choosing the best candidate. Under that philosophy, it makes sense to make voting harder to weed out those who might care less, or be less tied to the community, or be less educated or intelligent.
The Democrats’ philosophy about voting and elections could not be more different. Democrats tend to see elections as about the allocation of power among political equals, and it is not the state’s job to decide who is smart enough or motivated enough to vote. Indeed, Democrats’ concerns about these new Republican laws is not really that they literally will disenfranchise many voters; it is that by adding additional effort to the requirements to cast a ballot, these new Republican restrictions will deter casual voters from bothering to take the steps necessary to cast a ballot that will count.
As with Republicans, the Democrats’ philosophy on voting neatly ties in with the party’s self-interest. These casual voters are going to be more likely to vote Democratic. Thus, proclaiming a high-minded commitment to universal enfranchisement also is good for Democratic candidates. It is no surprise that states which have adopted Election Day registration – as California recently did for future elections – tend to be states with Democratic-dominated legislatures. Nor have Democrats shown any interest in removing noncitizens from the rolls in the off-season, although noncitizen voting remains a real, if small, problem.
The latest skirmishes in the voting wars have laid bare the underlying voting philosophies of the two major parties, and the connection of those philosophies to each party’s self- interest. This is a fight that’s taken place at the margin, in technical changes to voting rules. Perhaps these changes will have no effect at all on the identity of the next president. Or perhaps they will be the difference between four more years of Barack Obama and a new presidency under Mitt Romney.