The Evil Effort to Restrict the Franchise

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Republicans may be wrong when they repeat their mantra about “job killing tax cuts” seeing as jobs increased after Bill Clinton raised taxes and have not done so in the ten years since George W. Bush lowered them. Other economic factors have more to do with job growth than the tax rate. I believe there is something dangerous, not just wrong, in the affinity some Republicans have for the Austrian school of economics with its anti-Christian understanding of the human person.

But, the efforts of some GOP governors and state legislatures to restrict the franchise is not only wrong and not only dangerous, it is profoundly un-American. Regular readers will know that this is not an adjective I use lightly.

The other day, NPR had a report about the Secretary of State in Kansas, Kris Korbach, who talked about voter fraud during his campaign. He cited the case of Alfred Brewer who had died in 1996 but had nonetheless apparently voted in the 2010 primary. Obviously, this was a big problem and needed to be addressed. Unfortunately for Korbach, when a reporter called the Brewer homestead, and spoke with Mrs. Brewer, she explained that Alfred Sr. had died in 1996 and Alfred Jr., the one who voted in the primary, was out raking the leaves.

There is not widespread voter fraud in Kansas. There is not widespread voter fraud in any state in the union. The issue has been fabricated to justify state legislatures passing restrictive laws that make it more difficult for key groups to vote, especially the elderly, the young and the poor. For example, if a state insists on voters producing a government-issued photo ID, some poor people who take the bus, may not have a driver’s license. If you restrict early voting or voting by mail, you make it harder for seniors and the disabled, who use early voting to avoid long, exhausting lines on election day.

The League of Women Voters is about the most white bread organization I can think of yet they have been drawn into this fight. The group that is so non-partisan, they are entrusted with organizing candidate debates throughout the country, this group has strongly opposed efforts to restrict access to the polls. Since 1920, the whole purpose of the League has been to educate voters and get more Americans participating in our democracy.

The nation unveiled a monument on the National Mall to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last month. Dr. King was not whitebread, to be sure, but he has rightly joined the pantheon of great Americans that is the Mall. And, one of the reasons for his greatness was his successful effort to call Americans to their own best traditions, which had no room for poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act was not just King’s achievement. It was America’s.

Smart Republicans should be alarmed by these proposals also. Not only do they not pass the ethical sniff test. But, by trying to disenfranchise the poor, they are disproportionately trying to disenfranchise minorities. The GOP is doing enough to anger the fastest growing demographic in America, Hispanics, and making it harder for them vote is unlikely to help make the GOP more attractive over the long haul. So, it is not only wrong, it is dumb, unless of course, your only, over-riding objective is to defeat Barack Obama in 2012 in which a few thousand disenfranchised voters in a couple of key swing states could make a big difference.

In Pennsylvania, the Republicans are trying a different, and more direct, approach to frustrating Obama’s re-election effort. They are hoping to change the way the Commonwealth’s electoral votes are apportioned. Like every state except Maine and Nebraska, Pennsylvania currently employs a “winner-take-all” approach to the electors: You win the state, you get all that state’s electors. In Nebraska and Maine, if you win a congressional district, you win that district’s electoral vote and whoever wins the statewide tally gets two electors. I have never much liked the winner-take-all system, but if Pennsylvania abandons it in advance of the 2012 election, the only immediate consequence is that no presidential candidate will have much reason to pay attention to the state when he can go across the border to New Jersey or Ohio and compete for the whole bloc of electoral votes. And, in case you thought the GOP was becoming more broad-minded, Nebraska is trying to abandon the model Pennsylvania is looking to adopt because, heaven forfend, Barack Obama won one of Nebraska’s electoral votes in 2008.

I have no problem with the entire country abandoning the winner-take-all system and adopting the Maine and Nebraska model. Indeed, I have no problem with going to a straight popular vote: amongst other things, we would have been spared the presidency of George W. Bush. And, a popular vote would allow large states that lean one way or the other, like California, New York and Texas, to get a visit during the general election. The entire electoral college system is unfairly slanted towards small states, but at least the Maine model or direct popular election would make for broader competition and possibly spur voter turnout and participation.

Ah, but voter participation is no longer what it once was. In high school, we were taught it was a civic duty – although I learned that lesson at the kitchen table seeing as my grandmother, my mother and my sister held the job of Registrar of Voters amongst themselves for most of the 20th century. It is still a civic duty, a right of citizenship and a blessing of freedom to be able to vote. Surely, the idea that we should manipulate the system by which Americans vote to restrict their access to the franchise deserves the moniker “anti-American.”

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