I voted today.
No, I’m not a time traveler – alas. I’m currently far away from the place I call home, and my absentee ballot went out today.
In the packet I received, there was a bundle of notifications, most of which dealt with election law -it is illegal to coerce absentee voters, to advocate political parties, candidates, or referendum questions to those you know possess absentee ballots, that sort of thing. These laws, obviously, serve a vital purpose in our democratic republic: everyone has the right to express his or her vote, secretly and without manipulation. I earlier posted about the necessity of voting in the US, and that essay assumed that voters were allowed to engage in legitimate, authentic expression.
That’s why the recent spate of voter-ID laws deeply concerns me: how many citizens will lose their voice because of an unproved fear of fraud? When engaging with conservatives recently, I was offered up two arguments in favor of voter-ID: that everything else requires ID, and that disenfranchisement takes many forms.
Let’s examine these one by one: the first (and stronger) argument claims that since we need ID to drive, open a bank account, and countless other activities, then voting should be added to that list to protect its integrity. The flaw in this argument is that it’s possible to live without driving, banking, and countless other things. It’s also possible to live without voting, but as citizens in a republic, voting is central to our civic rights and responsibilities. In fact, it’s the most inalienable right of a free republic – if you are a citizen of a republic and are barred from voting you are not a free citizen. Others are deciding your life for you without your consent. Every citizen must be allowed to express his or her preferences for leadership.
The second argument says that if someone casts a vote illegitimately, it disenfranchises a legitimate voter. Conceptually, there’s a pretty serious difference between stifled speech (the prevention of expression) and the toleration of illegitimate speech, (the existence of expressed preferences that do not merit consideration) but even ignoring this legalistic distinction the argument doesn’t hold up. Not only does this argument assume that all illegitimate votes will benefit one party (if they split 50/50 the point would be moot), but it also assumes that fraud is widespread and serious enough to influence an election. Investigations do not turn up large amounts of voter fraud – especially not at the individual level. Though some argue that the inability to find evidence of crimes does not imply that it does not exist, I know of no other way to gauge the prevalence of a problem than by the results of investigations – and the belief in something despite evidence to the contrary is the province of religion, not law.
For all their professed patriotism, conservatives at times don’t seem to like Americans very much. Romney’s well-publicized dismissal of 47% of the electorate is only one head of this suspicious hydra – voter-suppression laws, anti-immigration proposals, and welfare-restriction rhetoric are all others. The common theme is the belief that most other Americans aren’t actually very good citizens (or even very good people). It’s all over the news: “laziness”, “entitlement”, and “mooching” have all become buzzwords, and they share in common the profound belief that some other Americans is stealing your fair share. America is great; Americans are a pack of thieves.
And how can America be great without great citizens – without educated, concerned, active citizens? Do conservatives intend to drag the nation, kicking and whining, to the halls of greatness? Will we have greatness thrust upon us by a Randian class of supermen?
Let’s be honest – a nation is nothing without its citizens. We can’t go good in the world on top-down policies alone. Education, economic opportunity, and a social safety net strong enough to support one another in the tough times are key to the development of a strong, intelligent, and trustworthy citizenry. When the leaders of a nation start expressing a fear and distrust of the larger part of citizens of that nation, then we know bad policy can’t be far behind.