Voter Fraud Claims, Voter Suppression Claims and False Equivalence in the Voter ID Debate

I have been getting a lot of pushback from Democrats and those on the left recently about some recent posts, my book chapter, and a recent oped of mine on the subject of voter identification laws.  The essence of the complaint is that I’ve drawn a false equivalence between spurious Republican claims of voter fraud offered to justify new strict voter identification laws and exaggerated Democratic claims of the extent to which such laws are likely to actually deter Democratic voters from voting.  One prominent Democrat accused me of a false evenhandedness as a “media strategy” for my upcoming book.  Another Democrat writes that there is a problem with my writing because it implies a parallel in which engaging in voter suppression and fighting voter suppression are seen as morally equivalent acts, and that I’ve just thrown up my hands and lamented how both sides are acting in a ridiculous way.

This was a change of pace for me, after having heard a prominent Republican complain about my book (which the person read in draft form) that it was too one-sided in favor of Democrats and that I missed my “Nixon in China” moment, and reading this complaint about my book chapter that it is a “biased hatchet job” favoring Democrats because the chapter does not discuss the Carter-Baker report.  I spend a great deal of time describing Hans von Spakovsky, Thor Hearne, the American Center for Voting Rights, and other members of the “fraudulent fraud squad” and how they manufactured a “voter fraud” epidemic, often with racial undertones, for partisan gain.

I was very conscious of the issue of bias and false evenhandness in writing the book. As I explain there, the book is harsher on Republicans than Democrats because Republicans have done more objectionable things in the Voting Wars over the last decade. I reject the idea of false evenhandedness in the name of nominal objectivity. But Democrats have hardly been innocent, and I offer specific examples in the book of spurious or exaggerated voter suppression claims on the Left.

On the specific issue of voter identification, I do believe that Republican actions have been worse than Democrats. While some Republican legislators likely believe the lies told about the pervasiveness of impersonation voter fraud, most do not and favor these strict rules for partisan advantage.  In my recent oped I explain why I oppose these laws: they serve no purpose, Republicans support them for the wrong reason, the small effects of the laws can still matter in razor thin races, and the dignity of the voter requires not putting stumbling blocks in front of eligible voters even if it won’t matter to election outcomes.Especially because the full effects of such laws are unknown, we should not put such laws in place which serve no purpose.

But Democrats and those on the Left do themselves no favors when they engage in hyperbole and vastly exaggerate the likely effect of such laws.  When a state puts a voter id law in place, many people will already have i.d.  Some without i.d. will easily be able to get it, and some who could get i.d. won’t bother because they won’t be voting anyway.  As I explain, the best studies have shown that so far at least, the laws have not deterred that many people from turning out. (Perhaps Texas’s law, aimed at students, will have a larger effect if it is put in place.)

Exaggerating the effects of voter suppression efforts has a number of bad consequences: (1) it makes legitimate arguments against voter identification harder for journalists and the public to accept (and remember we are dealing with a public which overwhelmingly supporters voter identification requirements at the polls); (2) it further undermines public confidence in the election process by keeping a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations going, adding to a media narrative of he said-she said rather than encouraging a search for the truth (a narrative made much worse by the presence of social media); and (3) it causes Democrats especially to have less faith in the electoral process by believing (the way many Republican voters do now about voter fraud) that voter suppression is pervasive.

So I think it is counterproductive to claim that potentially millions of people will be disenfranchised by a GOP “war on voting” in 2012.  I think reasoned sober argument is likely to be both more effective and more accurate.

No, voter suppression and efforts to counter voter suppression are not equivalent. But Democrats and those on the left have some responsibility here too.




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