Why are Republicans so scared of democracy? Why are they so hostile toward voting?
In most of his campaign speeches this year, Bernie Sanders has made the point that, in general, voter turnout is directly correlated to Democrats winning elections. That is, when the maximal number of people cast ballots in a given year, Democratic candidates tend to do well, while Republicans fare better when turnout is relatively low.
While evidence for this is suggestive but not conclusive, the idea is that young people and poor people are the groups who vote the least, and both demographics tend to support liberal candidates. Thus, if Democrats could simply inspire those bums to get off the couch on the first Tuesday of every November, the party would eke out solid victories from coast to coast, and probably never lose a presidential election again.
Certainly, there are counterarguments to this theory, beginning with the fact that less-dependable voters are also less ideological, and thus more susceptible to change their minds from year to year.
Then again, we don’t really need statistical proof that high turnout favors Democrats and disadvantages Republicans. All we need to do is observe how the two parties behave whenever the issue of voting rights comes up.
At every juncture, Democrats do all they can to expand the voter pool and erase whatever barriers remain for citizens who are already eligible to vote. Republicans, meanwhile, take the opposite approach, digging whatever sand traps they can to make the act of voting as difficult and unpleasant as possible.
Do I exaggerate?
Year after year, it is Republicans—and only Republicans—who advocate “voter ID” laws, which would necessarily disenfranchise a significant chunk of eligible American voters who, without having broken any laws, happen not to possess the sorts of identification such laws would require. (In big cities, for instance, many residents don’t own a driver’s license because they have no need for a car.)
In Virginia in 2008, it was Republicans who sent flyers to Democratic neighborhoods telling them to vote on the wrong day. In 2012, five states—four of which had Republican governors—cut back on early voting, which allows those who can’t get out of work on Election Day to cast a ballot on a day that they can. (“Too busy” is the number one reason registered voters don’t make it to the polls.) During the Maryland gubernatorial race in 2010, a Republican consultant pulled back whatever was left of the curtain by saying, “the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression,” specifically by ensuring that “African-American voters stay home.”
Shenanigans like these—anecdotal that they are—help to erase any notion that Republicans’ real target is so-called “voter fraud”—the act of casting a ballot under false pretenses. While it sounds reasonable to want to prevent that sort of thing, it becomes slightly less so when you learn that, according to one study, there has been a grand total of 31 instances of voter fraud in the United States since 2000—a period of time that saw roughly one billion ballots cast.
Percentage-wise, the likelihood of voter fraud affecting the outcome of an election is roughly equivalent to that of being eaten by a shark in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
No, the purpose of voter ID laws is exactly what it looks like: To keep liberals away from the ballot box.
This being the case, we are now in the nascent stages of a major fight on this issue between representatives of our two political parties. The fight concerns a simple but profound question: Should all Americans be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18?
Presently, if you want to participate in the democratic process, the onus is on you to march down to City Hall and register to vote. You must do this upon reaching the age of majority and any time you move to a different address. God forbid you forget, don’t have time, don’t care or don’t get your application processed on time.
Now there is talk of streamlining the registration process by reversing it. Under the new proposal—bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress—you would be automatically added to the voter rolls unless you specifically opt out.
What a splendid idea. Indeed, it would be the most pro-voter federal policy shift since the Nineteenth Amendment, and we have the research to prove it.
Consider organ donation. In many countries, you must give your affirmative consent to become an organ donor—typically upon renewing your driver’s license—while in others, you are made a potential donor automatically unless you actively refuse. The outcome of these policies is striking: In “opt-in” Germany, for instance, only 12 percent of citizens are organ donors. Meanwhile, in “opt-out” Austria right next door, the number is 99.98 percent.
In general, you can use statistics to reach any conclusion you want, but this case seems pretty cut and dry.
Further, there is little reason to expect that automatic voter registration wouldn’t yield similar results: At the proverbial end of the day, how many Americans are so hostile toward the democratic process that they would actively deny themselves the mere opportunity to cast a vote? So long as they are afforded that right, what exactly is the problem?
The effect of such a system could be transformative. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now more than 70 million Americans who are eligible to vote but haven’t even bothered to register. That’s 70 million potential ballots that are just floating around in the ether—legitimate would-be votes with the potential to swing every race in this country.
To be sure, just because those 70 million people would suddenly become registered does not mean they would actually exercise their newly-acquired right. Some people do not become voters for entirely deliberate reasons, and there are plenty of Americans whose grasp of the issues is such that their abstention from the process is probably for the best. (Then again, we could say the same for many who do vote, but that’s another story.)
All things considered, automatic voter registration seems like a slam dunk—one of those simple, obvious ideas we’re embarrassed not to have thought up sooner. Who could possibly object?
Chris Christie, for one. Earlier this month, the New Jersey legislature passed the “Democracy Act,” which, in addition to automatic registration, would have allowed residents to register online and provided two weeks of early voting every election cycle. However, as governor, Christie vetoed the legislation, calling it “thinly-veiled political gamesmanship” and arguing that such reforms would lead to increases in—you guessed it!—voter fraud.
We’ve already established how the latter claim is utter nonsense, but what about the former? Are Democratic Party initiatives like early voting and automatic registration mere ploys to run up the score in favor of America’s left wing?
Sure they are. If Democrats know—or at least assume—that high voter turnout redounds to their benefit, any maneuver to jack up turnout is axiomatically a political act.
But that’s not the point. Everything is a political act. The question is whether this particular political act is consistent with basic American principles and traditions. If so, the politics behind it become irrelevant.
Call me crazy, but I would estimate that ensuring equal protection under the law is a more worthy American tradition than keeping poor people and minorities from participating in the democratic process.
Further, this shouldn’t be an especially difficult feat to pull off. Over the past 150 years, we have amended our Constitution to clarify that the right of adult citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, sex, age and—with the Voting Rights Act—race again.
Having accomplished all of that—however haltingly—you’d think denying the vote on account of laziness and/or having a busy schedule would be a breeze to overcome, even for the Congress we’re stuck with today.
As Churchill is alleged to have said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”