The Wrong Conversation on Voter ID Laws

Kevin Glass

8/30/2013 2:01:00 PM - Kevin Glass

Last week, President Obama's Justice Department filed suit against the state of Texas over Texas' new voter ID law. It wasn't surprising, but it's the latest salvo by progressives to delegitimize the effort by many states across the country to pass voter integrity laws.

One of those laws, signed by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory recently, was written about last week by Phyllis Schlafly - and she defended the measures that would cut down on early voting, party-line voting, and institute voter ID requirements.

Progressive writers have seized on Schlafly's column and other conservatives' comments on voter ID laws to be a trend in which, as Kevin Drum writes, "conservatives are finally admitting what voter suppression laws are all about." Drum was following what was written by Steve Benen, and the theme was picked up by Jamelle Bouie. Progressives think that what conservatives are earnestly after is the suppression of voting demographics that are unfavorable to Republicans.

That's wrong, and it's wrong for an obvious reason. Conservatives are genuinely concerned about voter fraud nationwide. The typical response is that voter fraud is not a big deal (something that is contentious, obviously). If voter fraud is not a legitimate issue to be concerned with, progressives have done a lousy job of doing the convincing. The impetus for voter ID laws is not voter suppression - it's ensuring clean and fair elections. And this is not to mention that the arguments about who would be disenfranchised by such laws are egregiously trumped up by progressives.

Pennsylvania state Republican politician Mike Turzai last year declared that his state's voter ID law would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." This has been trumpeted as a Republican admitting that the goal of the voter ID law was to suppress turnout - to say nothing that it might be the case that Turzai might have been concerned about voter fraud, and that the vote in Pennsylvania could be close enough that fraud could have been the deciding factor.

Ah, but what of early voting? Many Republican politicians are pushing to cut down on early voting, which hasn't been the subject of much discussion of voter fraud. Even though it may not be popularly discussed, as Deroy Murdock wrote for National Review, there are concerns that expanding the period for voting is also an invitation for fraud. Cutting down on early voting is not an attempt to suppress certain voting demographics. Like voter ID laws, it's an attempt to combat fraud.

Two things can both be true: voter fraud is not the problem that conservatives have made it out to be, and disenfranchisement from voter integrity laws is not the problem that progressives have made it out to be. Indeed, if Republicans have set out to suppress votes from demographics they believe to turn out more heavily for Democrats, they're doing a really lousy job of it.

What is true is that Republicans believe that voter integrity laws like North Carolina's are good for Republicans. It's not because the laws suppress demographics unlikely to vote for Republicans, it's because Republicans believe that Democrats are uniquely good at committing voter fraud.

Republicans are likely wrong about this. Voter fraud exists, but not on a scale that could swing a major election, and not of the type that would be particularly aided by voter ID laws. But Republicans can be wrong, rather than the engineers of a nationwide conspiracy to stop minorities from voting.

In light of the fact that voter ID laws likely increased minority turnout at the polls in some of the states where the laws were in effect, it's difficult to label them "suppression" laws.

I spoke with Francesca Chambers of Red Alert Politics about voter ID laws and the dishonest national conversation we've been having, and whether Republicans might be wrong to push voter ID laws in light of their effects, both symbolic and effective.