Democrats Should Widen Focus on Voter Suppression

04/14/2014 07:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2014

What with the ceremonies at the L.B.J. presidential library last week to commemorate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 becoming law, the subject of current-day voter suppression was brought up by several Democrats, including President Obama. While it was important to spotlight Republican efforts to move backwards on expanding voting rights in the speeches, what was noticeable on the weekend political talk shows was how adept Republicans are at centering their entire argument around voter identification laws. Democrats presenting their own case seemed willing to go along with this, for the most part.

Now, Democratic willingness to directly take on the arguments of voter ID laws is admirable. Democrats know that the facts are on their sides, and they repeatedly point out that voter fraud is pretty much non-existent in America today. If you added up all the successfully-prosecuted cases of voter fraud for the past three or four election cycles, the total would be not be enough to swing even a statewide race, much less a national one. The Republican efforts are nothing short of a "solution" in search of a problem.

That's a good case to make, and Democrats (to their credit) have been pretty strongly making it. But if Democrats focus solely on the voter ID laws -- as the conversation always seems to do -- they wind up ignoring a much wider and much more sweeping political case they could instead be focusing on. I am not suggesting here, to put this another way, that Democrats back off on defending their position at all. I am merely pointing out that focusing solely on voter ID means leaving a more-powerful argument on the table, undiscussed. Which is a shame.

The Republican voter-suppression efforts don't end with voter ID laws. Democrats would do well to point this out. Republicans are also busily passing laws which restrict registration efforts, restrict early voting, restrict poll locations, and restrict ballot-box access in many other ways. This should be the centerpiece of the Democratic argument: Republicans want to make it harder for you to vote.

Separate out the voter ID issue. Put it to the side. Widen the conversation to the larger picture, because it is an ugly one that most Americans would consider nothing short of a naked effort to suppress the vote. That is a much more powerful argument for Democrats to make. Republicans want to make it harder to vote, Democrats want to make it easier. It's a simple concept, and it's one that strikes at a foundational belief most Americans share: Things always get better throughout American history, never worse. Pointing out that this is exactly what Republicans are trying to do should be the main focus of the Democratic argument.

Voter identification laws are in a sort of limbo right now. In an initial legal case, the Supreme Court ruled that the concept of a state requiring identification to vote is not, in and of itself, unconstitutional. However, since that point, many states have passed such laws (increasingly, in the past few years) only to have them ensnared in legal actions. As these cases wind their way upwards through the federal court system, nobody really knows which case the Supreme Court will take next on the issue, and how it will ultimately rule. During this window of time, politicians on both sides of the issue are making their case to the public.

The problem for Democrats on the issue is that the Republican position sounds awfully reasonable, at first glance. After all, these days you have to produce a photo identification to board an airplane, open a bank account, drive, and many other aspects of modern life. So what's the big deal with requiring a photo ID to vote, after all? This argument plays well in the suburbs, and among people who have never lived in cities or otherwise come into contact with groups of Americans (and there are indeed millions of them out there) who don't drive, don't have a bank account, never fly, and don't do all the other modern-life things which require ID

The problem for Democrats is that this requires educating the public on the real victims of such laws. The reason that it's a problem is that this part of the larger argument takes so long to explain that it consumes the entire interview and the entire discussion on-screen. Democrats never have time to move on to their other points. Which, as I said, is a shame, because their bigger point is so much more powerful.

Imagine, if you will, a Democratic member of Congress being interviewed on the issue, paired up with a Republican. The Republican swiftly moves to make his points on voter ID laws. But instead of taking this path, the Democrat instead responds with some version of the following:

Well, the Democratic position on voter ID is well known, so instead of laying it all out for you again today, I'd like to make a different point. My esteemed colleague Senator Bushwah says that the reason voter ID laws are being enacted is to combat voter fraud. Well, voter fraud is all but non-existent, but whatever. Let's take a look instead at some of the other laws being enacted hand-in-hand with these ID laws. Over the past half-century, many states have made good-faith efforts to expand voting and make it easier for citizens to perform this important civic duty. But now, Republicans are trying to roll back all these voting expansions, because they think that by doing so, they'll make it harder for Democrats to vote. This includes efforts to: make it harder to register, make it harder for students to register, make it harder to get an absentee ballot, make it harder to vote by mail, and change polling locations to make them more inconvenient for voters. How does ending a program which allows high school students to pre-register so they are on the voting rolls by their 18th birthday fight voter fraud? Why in the name of sanity would we make it harder for these new voters to cast the first vote of their lives? That is what Republicans are indeed doing.

The most blatant of these efforts is to roll back early voting. Many states, to encourage people who find it hard to vote on a Tuesday (because they are hard at work), have extended voting to add days or even weeks of open polling days before Election Day. They have opened their polling places early, so people can cast votes on the weekend, or other times more convenient to them than Tuesdays. Republicans are against this, for some inconceivable reason. Making it easier for people to vote has nothing to do with voter fraud. Nothing. Making it harder for people to vote by closing down these early voting days is nothing short of trying to suppress the vote. There is no other possible explanation for doing so.

So I'd like to ask you, Senator Bushwah, why exactly did you support the new law in your state which got rid of early Sunday voting? Doing so has nothing to do with voter fraud, and everything to do with the fact that African-Americans in your state have been delighted with Sunday voting because it means they are able to go cast their votes right after they attend church. The only possible reason for making it harder for your constituents to vote -- by killing Sunday voting -- is that you don't particularly like who votes on Sundays.

This is a powerful case to make. It shifts the focus from the voter ID laws to all the rest of the voter suppression laws now being gleefully passed by Republican statehouses across the country. When you set aside the argument over voter fraud and voter identification and focus instead on the rest of the voter suppression efforts, it leaves the Republicans with a much weaker case to make. Reasonable people (especially low-information voters in the suburbs) can disagree about voter ID laws, after all, but it is much tougher to argue "reducing the number of voting days is a good thing for American democracy." That's not a reasonable argument to make, really. By forcing the conversation to the larger issue, Democrats make the much stronger case: "We stand for making it easier to vote -- Republicans want to make it harder for you to cast your vote." That hits home, even out in the suburbs.

Rather than getting into the weeds of the voter ID laws -- even when you've got a good point to make ("Texas accepts a gun permit for identification, but not state-issued student IDs!") -- Democrats need to instead take control of the larger argument. Because Republican efforts do not stop with just new voter ID laws -- they are passing all sorts of laws which have no other purpose than suppressing the vote. Or, even worse, suppressing certain demographic segments of the vote. And they really have no believable counterargument to make.

So while, as I said, Democrats are overall doing a pretty good job of defending their position on voter ID laws, by doing so at the expense of the larger argument they wind up selling themselves short. Because there is a much easier and much more powerful argument to make, if you set the voter ID sub-argument to the side for a moment. Democrats should be making this larger case, every chance they get. One party fights for expansion of voting rights. One party is now fighting as hard as they can against expanding the ease of voting. For no supportable reason. That's a political argument worth making, and one that Democrats should now be strongly pointing out.


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