Sometimes the debate matters more than the issue.
Married couples understand this. When they are fighting about whether to leave the toilet seat up or down, the actual issue is pretty secondary. After all, whether one person regularly has to lift the seat, or the other person regularly has to lower the seat, or both -- it doesn't really affect quality of life all that much. What really matters isn't the issue itself; it's how the couple discusses the issue. Because if a couple is regularly having over-heated arguments about the state of a toilet seat... well, that doesn't exactly bode very well for the rest of the marriage, now does it?
These "toilet seat issues," when the debate itself is more important than the issue being debated, are not uncommon in our personal lives, in business, and in politics. Toilet seat issues can get a lot of national attention, inflame passions, and hurt the country even though the outcomes don't actually matter all that much. Take, for instance, the debate about voter ID laws.
By this point this debate has become extremely heated. On one hand, you have liberals like Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who recently suggested that the movement to pass these laws should be considered a "crime against democracy." On the other hand, conservatives like Texas Senator John Cornyn have called the laws "vital to the health of American democracy." And polls suggest that this over-heated rhetoric is trickling down to the average voters.
As is usually the case for these toilet seat issues, rhetoric and reality are wildly different. Pollster Nate Silver has studied these laws, and has made a very strong case for why the laws will likely have only a small effect on Election Day. How small? We've calculated that, if implemented, the impact of these laws on elections would be smaller than such factors as ballot error (people voting for a different candidate than they intended), the ordering of names on a ballot, and even the weather on Election Day, just to name a few factors. Passing voter ID laws won't have much of a short-term effect -- and in the long term, most people who want to vote will get the proper identification.
Of course, not passing the laws won't make much of a difference either. In-person voter fraud, of the kind that would be prevented by these laws, is absurdly rare. In Pennsylvania there has never been a successfully prosecuted case of voter ID fraud of the type that would be stopped by these laws. In Texas, the second largest state in the union, there have been exactly four such cases over the last decade across all federal, state, and local elections, including primaries. A Department of Justice study estimated that roughly one out of every ten million votes cast in a federal election is due to voter fraud. Clearly the country has bigger problems than that.
But even though voter fraud is not especially common, and the laws themselves are not particularly likely to impact an election, the debate about those laws can be harmful to American Democracy. As we've argued before, democracy relies on a widespread belief that the laws which govern all of our lives are fair. And that sense of fairness relies on the electoral process -- everyone has a say in choosing the people who make those laws. And even though the outcome of the debate doesn't matter, the effect of the debate is to cause people on both sides to feel that the system is less fair.
Sure, some Republican politicians might also see an electoral benefit from these laws, but the vast majority of Republicans don't actually believe that the laws will affect turnout. Instead they believe that the laws are necessary to prevent fraud and protect the integrity of the electoral process. Democrats, on the other hand, believe that the main effect of these laws will be to disenfranchise otherwise legitimate voters who have trouble getting access to proper identification. In other words, the debate here pits the principal of a fair and sound electoral system against the principal of universal suffrage -- both noble ideals, but ideals that aren't really at risk in the current debate.
Which is why this is a toilet seat issue. Just like the married couple fighting over a toilet seat, the damaging and heated rhetoric has far outstripped the actual importance of the issue. And just like with the toilet seat, the actual solution doesn't matter too much -- certainly not when you compare it with the bigger problems we have as a country. Toilet seat issues are not uncommon in politics. It is far too easy for pundits and politicians to couch miniscule policy changes in grand, almost apocalyptic, terminology. What really matters is that we tone down the rhetoric while we work together to find a solution that we can all live with.
Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.