A Philosopher's Blog

Suppressing Voters

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 25, 2012
Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin

Scott Walker, 45th Governor of Wisconsin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the 2012 election coming up, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing the ads encouraging people to vote. Given that voting is an essential part of a proper democracy, this sort of encouragement is quite reasonable and even laudable. What is far less laudable are the attempts to suppress voters.

As might be imagined, politicians will not come out and state that they are attempting to suppress voters via legislation. Rather, they present these attempts under the guise of preventing voter fraud. The main problem with this justification is that these are solutions in search of  a problem. That is, voter fraud is simply not a significant problem. To present two examples, the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State revealed a fraud rate of 0.0009% and the Ohio election that same year had a fraud rate of 0.00004%. As such, an individual voter is more likely to be struck by lightning while going to vote than s/he is to commit voter fraud. While people do present anecdotes and alleged evidence of fraud, these generally turn out to be mistaken.

Naturally, if countering even this microscopic problem could be done with no cost or inconvenience, then it would be worth doing. However, this is not the case. Rather, the attempts to “prevent” this extremely unlikely voter fraud impose costs and inconvenience on the voters far out of proportion to the significance of the problem. Even worse, these “anti-fraud” measures actually seem calculated to suppress people who tend to historically vote for Democrats, such as the poor and students. As such, it is hardly a shock that these laws have been presented by Republicans. While it might be the case that they are acting from good intentions, the fact that the problem they are addressing barely even exists and the fact that those most impacted by the methods are those who tend to vote for Democrats gives rational grounds for suspicions regarding the motivation behind said laws. If, in fact, these laws are aimed at suppressing voters, they are wicked laws because they strike at a fundamental right of citizens, namely that of being a participating citizen. As such, these laws certainly seem to be immoral. While it might be claimed that my view is unfounded, due consideration of the facts should reveal the plausibility of my view.

Under the rule of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin passed the Voter Photo ID law which requires citizens to show an official photo ID (such as a driver’s license) in order to be able to vote. Some other Republican dominated states have passed similar laws. On the face of it, this might seem like no big deal. After all, most people already have such IDs and those who do not can simply get them. In fact, Wisconsin offers voters the necessary ID for free. However, there are some points worth considering. First, some DMV offices have been closed or have had their hours changed. This makes it harder for people to get the needed IDs. Second, there is the challenge in getting the documentation needed to get the ID. For example, if a resident’s utility bills are included in the rental fee, they will not have that proof of residence. There is also the matter of the certified birth certificate. Most people do not have these and they cost $20. While most people will see $2o as no big deal, this can be a problem fro people who are very poor and there is also the hassle of getting the document. Adding to the hassle is that women voters will sometimes need to buy copies of their marriage license or divorce papers to prove their identity so they can vote.

It might be replied that this is still no big deal. After all, the worst case estimate seems to be that about 5 million voters will have a tougher time voting in 2012 and, of course, people need to go through all that documentation hell to get a driver’s license (I went through it myself-fortunately I had the foresight and the money to get my passport before the laws went into effect). While it is surely tempting to some to dismiss this as not a problem, it certainly seems to be a problem for a country that purports to be a democracy and one that is supposed to value voting.

One point worth considering is that voter turnout is already rather low, with less than 2/3 of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. Adding in extra obstacles to voting will no doubt lower this turnout, which would be contrary to the values of a democracy. If we believe that voting is important, then we should be focusing our efforts on improving participation rather than impeding it under the deceitful guise of eliminating almost non-existent voting fraud.

Once again, if voter fraud was a serious problem, I would support steps to prevent it from occurring. Of course, what is going on now can be seen as a type of voter fraud: one in which certain Republicans are using fraud to try to keep American citizens away from the voting booths. This is, of course, an attack on the core values of a democracy, yet is being pushed by the self-proclaimed champions of America.

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