All is well: voting restrictions are really about ‘uniformity’
One of the first things you learn in high-school political science is that high voter turnout tends to favor one party while low turnout favors the other. Back when this was basic enlightening fact was made known to me, there weren’t the early voting, weekend voting, extended polling, or same-day registration-and-vote options as we’ve come to know them– although there were still plenty of fresh tales about the kind of suppression efforts, from the comprehensive to the spontaneous, that had spurred passage of the original Voting Rights Act in 1965 and given Congress in the intervening years ample reason to reauthorize it multiple times. Still, for a class of high-schoolers grappling with the particularities of the most recent reauthorization (this was 1982, for the record), it was generally much easier to view the axiom in meteorological terms: sunny voting days favor Democrats; rainy and snowy ones, Republicans.
Currently unable to dictate the weather, Republicans in swing states are finding ways to make conditions as inclement as possible. “Uniformity” is now the stated objective of their mission, which has gained urgency and speed since last summer’s Supreme Court ruling rolling back the preclearance requirements of the VRA. In places like Ohio and Wisconsin and Texas, making everything uniform basically means making it harder for the people who don’t fit a certain (shall we call it “uniform”?) demographic to cast their votes.
As a justification, it’s probably a less impeachable one than limiting fraud—evidence of which has been scant to nonexistent. It’s harder to argue against efforts to restore an unquantifiable “orderliness” to a process that for some has grown too unruly.
And if such measures as eliminating polling sites, rolling back voting hours, or requiring specific types of photo identification burden voters who rely on public transportation, work long hours or outside the uniform nine-to-five, or don’t have driver’s licenses or other valid ID (“validity” defined by a whole other set of craftily determined criteria)—well, then, mightn’t an introduction to the tenets of uniformity encourage them to get with the program?
It’s easy to say that measures to extend and simplify the opportunity to vote are equally geared toward benefiting the party that would gain the most from higher turnout. Still, encouraging people to take part in the democratic process seems a lot more in keeping with principles than discouraging or prohibiting them. And if uniformity is the goal, then why not apply it in the other direction? The creative energies now on display in bringing about uniformity could surely be directed toward inviting more Americans to vote—via uniform measures, even.
That Republican legislators can with straight faces dedicate themselves to the cause of “uniformity” is appropriate for a party known for lock-step discipline over messaging. Although that could put Wisconsin’s Republican State Senator Dale Schultz on the outs: “Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people,” he’s quoted as saying. But he might be making a larger error in assuming his party in fact does want to attract more people. As Martin Longman posits in the Washington Monthly:
Would it really ever be in the interests of a major political party to restrict voting in a multi-party system? Since there is a political price to pay for nakedly trying to disenfranchise people, a political party would not make the effort unless they had the hope of a sufficient upside. In a strictly binary system, it might make sense. But in a system with, say, proportional representation and/or a prime minister, I’m doubtful that it would ever pay off enough to compensate for the way it alienates people. But maybe it’s normal for a two-party system to develop in such a way that one party always benefits from higher turnout and one party always suffers. In such a system, the party that suffers will begin to doubt the worth of people’s right to vote, since that right imperils their hold on power.
That complicates the basic sunny-vs.-rainy construct young poli-sci students are introduced to. It also shines a pretty bright light on just what’s behind such seemingly innocuous claims about bringing “uniformity” to the voting process.
About the Author
Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.