A Philosopher's Blog

Disenfranchising

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 4, 2011
Ballot box with flag

Image by joebeone via Flickr

The right to vote is supposed to be a fundamental right in a democracy like the United States. However, denying people the right to vote has been something of an American tradition. Women were, of course, denied the right to vote until 1920. In the late 1800s Jim Crow laws were passed by southern Democrats to systematically deny blacks their voting rights. The various tactics used in these laws also sometimes excluded poor whites from voting, but steps were often taken to “correct” that problem.

Recent times have seen a significant surge of laws that would seem to have an impact on voting. The overwhelming majority of these laws have been put forth by Republicans, but Democrats have also had a role to play. These laws are typically presented as measures that are needed to counter voting fraud, although many critics contend that the sort of fraud these measures are intended to counter is extremely rare. It has been estimated that the new measures “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” As such, there seems to be a real issue here.

One point of concern is the matter of motivation. It seems likely that that the poor, the young and African-Americans will be most affected by the new laws. Since these demographics tend to vote for Democrats, it might be suspected that these laws are an attempt to disenfranchise such voters, thus reducing the likelihood that Democrats will be elected. Those supporting the laws, as noted above, claim that they are motivated solely by their desire to prevent voter fraud. Presumably, the fact that people who tend to vote for Democrats will be people most impacted by the laws is purely a matter of coincidence. I am inclined to think that the Republicans are, in fact, intending to use such laws to their political advantage. That said, the morality of an action and its consequences can be assessed independently of motives and this seems worth doing.

As noted above, the main argument for the new laws is based on the idea that they will reduce voter fraud. While it is laudable to reduce such fraud, such incidents seem to be rather rare and there is also the obvious question of whether or not the harm prevented by these laws will outweigh the harm done by these laws. After all, if voting is a very important thing, then laws that make it less likely that legitimate voters will participate in the democratic process is a matter of significant concern. Given the rarity of such fraud and the likely impact of the laws, it would seem that such laws would create more harm than good, thus making them morally dubious (at best).

One of the most widespread changes is the requirement for voters to show photo identification. Previously, only two states had this requirement. Now 34 states have such laws in the works. This is a point of concern because a large number of voters lack the identification needed. For example, South Carolina is estimated to have over 200,000 voters (8% of the total) who lack such identification.

Proponents of the laws contend, as noted above, that this requirement is needed to prevent fraud. However, the sort of fraud identification would prevent seems rare or even non-existent, hence there is the obvious question of why there is such a compelling need to implement such laws when they would most likely reduce the number of people who vote. It might, of course, be countered that it is better that  hundreds or thousands not vote than there be a single fraudulent vote cast. Of course, this can be countered that it is better for democracy that the risk of fraud be tolerated for the sake of allowing more people to exercise one of the most fundamental rights of a democracy.

It can also be contended that the requirement to show proper identification is not an onerous burden. After all, such identification is required to cash a check, to travel by air, and to operate a motor vehicle and in such cases is not considered asking too much to require identification. Also, some states plan to provide the identification people need in order to vote at no cost to the voters who need them. It can also be argued there is no compelling reason why anyone eligible to vote would be incapable of acquiring such identification with minimal effort. As such, the idea that such a requirement would wrongfully deny people the right to vote might seem absurd.

That said, given the horribly low voter turnouts, it is not unreasonable to think that there would be a significant number of voters who would simply not vote if even this additional  minor obstacle were placed in their way. As such, there is some concern that this seemingly reasonable requirement would reduce the number of people voting. However, it could be countered that while voting is a right, people should be willing to take at least some effort to exercise that right. As such, someone who is unwilling to acquire an appropriate identification has been disenfranchised, but by himself or herself and hence has no one else to blame. Naturally, if the identification requirements were burdensome, then this would be another matter.

As a final point, we should always be on guard against attempts to rob people of their right to vote. History has shown that people are quite willing to engage in this sort of misdeed and there is no reason to believe that people will not do such things again.

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14 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 4, 2011 at 7:21 am

    I’m a big proponent of early voting, so I’m against efforts to curtail it. On the other hand, showing a photo ID does not seem to be an unreasonable restriction. Just the other day I needed to show a photo ID to buy a can of Dust Off.

  2. WTP said, on October 4, 2011 at 9:27 am

    “we should always be on guard against attempts to rob people of their right to vote” – but doesn’t someone who votes illegally rob those who voted differently from the scofflaw of their vote? The current issues are nothing close to the extreme tactics you reference at the beginning of this article. More recent examples exist of voter fraud in Chicago and Texas in the 1960 presidential election, amonst others. Those frauds worked to the Democratic party’s advantage…as did, I might note, the Jim Crow laws. BTW, it’s a quibble but women in certain places and at certain times in the history of US states did have the right and ability to vote under circumstances similar to those of men. One might also point out that the Constitution at it’s earliest incarnation and interpretation did not permit direct election of US Senators or the President. If you read what many of the Founding Fathers wrote, you will find considerable discussion on the relative merits of this. As for the anti-Republican bias of this piece, I notice you make no mention of the major Democratic players who have recently suggested that democracy be suspended entirely for a “certain period of time”.

    if voting is a very important thing, then the lack of making an effort to reduce the number of illegitimate voters in the democratic process is a matter of significant concern.

    “I am inclined to think that the Republicans are, in fact, intending to use such laws to their political advantage.” Well, I am inclined to think that university professors use their positions of influence to their own political, social, and economic advantage.

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 4, 2011 at 10:15 am

      I think the whole concept of “rule of law” is foreign to Democrats. They would rather have impossibly vague statutes which can then be interpreted by “regulators” and other appointed officials as it suits them.

      • WTP said, on October 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

        I do believe a society can legislate itself into anarchy. Vague laws are just a first step. Funny how this piece dismisses the threat of voter fraud as insignificant, yet the simple act of proving you are who you say you are via a picture ID (which, BTW, two of my blind friends have so how is it so hard for others to obtain?) is an unnecessary burden.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:41 pm

          You’ll note that I say that requiring an ID hardly seems onerous, especially when the states will often provide the needed ID gratis. My concern is that people are so demoralized about voting that the least additional burden will cause people to disenfranchise themselves.

          • WTP said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm

            Well, that would be a choice of their own free will, wouldn’t it? Anyone that easily disenfranchised doesn’t deserve to be enfranchised in the first place.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

        They get rule of law, namely that being a high paid lawyer rules.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      “Well, I am inclined to think that university professors use their positions of influence to their own political, social, and economic advantage.”

      Shhh, no one is supposed to know that we secretly rule the world. All those budget cuts and layoffs in education are just a smokescreen to conceal our domination of the world. Underneath the 2001 Tacoma shell is my real car-a Porsche. My $72,000 townhouse actually conceals (Tardis like) a $5 million mansion. I have also decided the outcome of the 2012 election already.

      • WTP said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm

        Someone in power once said “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Note Money != Power. Warren Buffet has much money, but Barak Obama has much more power. It’s what you want out of life. Plus, I my implication of an advantage would be relative to what one could make elsewhere. It doesn’t necessarilly refer to great riches, just riches greater than those some could obtain elsewhere.

  3. Anonymous said, on October 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    @WTP
    ‘As for the anti-Republican bias of this piece, I notice you make no mention of the major Democratic players who have recently suggested that democracy be suspended entirely for a “certain period of time”.’
    Players? Players? Seems one governor that is a democrat has turned into multiple people.

    “if voting is a very important thing, then the lack of making an effort to reduce the number of illegitimate voters in the democratic process is a matter of significant concern.”
    Those are different things.

    ““I am inclined to think that the Republicans are, in fact, intending to use such laws to their political advantage.” Well, I am inclined to think that university professors use their positions of influence to their own political, social, and economic advantage.”
    I’m inclined to think WPT is a “republican” and takes offense at suggestions that people in policical power will do what they can to keep said power, especially (only?) if it references people in the party to which he/she affilaites him/herself.

    • WTP said, on October 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      Orzag or wth his name is in the WH also chimed in on this. Tom Friedman (granted, doesn’t officially speak for the party, but when he speaks the party tends to nod its collective heads) and a few others in the meida (ditto for those).

      I’m inclined to ignore the rest of this, since this sounds too much like frk/erik/dhammit/wtfHeCallsHimselfToday has taken advantage of Magus’s lax login habits to get around the obvious.

      • dhammett said, on October 5, 2011 at 9:13 am

        Sorry. Not me. You’re wrong. Again. Soon, given your “policy”, you won’t have anyone to respond to.😦

        signed:
        biomass2/freddiek/frk/erik/dhammit/wtf*HeCallsHimselfToday

        I thought ‘you’ were wtf.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    We can’t trust that our votes are counted accurately: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4FPuLNjvAc

  5. Shane Hall said, on October 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Without seeing the full requirements that the legislation wishes to enforce, this seems like a tempest in a teapot. Voting here in Canada requires the same level of voter-identification: there are strict interpretations of acceptable identification here, most commonly photo-id related via the provincially issued drivers licences. Jurisdictions such as the Province of Ontario are even moving forward with a non-drivers licence photo document that would stand as acceptable in the case of those who do not (or cannot) drive.

    The idea here is rights vs responsibilities. Everyone loudly decries threats and infringements on their Rights but rarely get upset when their Civic Responsibilities are not met. As noted above, a citizen that its eligible to cast a ballot should never have that Right reduced or restricted by the State through legislative or bureaucratic means. At the same time, that same citizen has the Responsibility to obtain and maintain the proper identifications and documents prescribed in order to allow him/her to respond to their role as a citizen.

    To quote the ubiquitously offensive yet roundly entertaining ‘Team America: World Police’, freedom isn’t free – democracy requires sober participation and careful execution. By not being WILLING to comply with what amounts to prudent participant verification, the citizen fails to fulfill his/her Civic Duty; I see nothing here that prevents them from being ABLE to comply.


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