There’s an old saying about elections frequently attributed to anarchist legend Emma Goldman: ‘If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.’
Take note: in the US, they’re now making it illegal.
Having endured more than a year of the presidential horse race, it is understandable that those Americans still concerned with public life would want to shift focus from elections. Any system that deserves to be called a democracy will rely on the more long-term work of building a participatory politics – the kind of engagement not limited to periodically choosing between two corporate-funded pitchmen.
Yet recognizing the limits of voting should not prevent us from appreciating the seriousness of an aggressive conservative campaign against the franchise. For many Americans, a fundamental right that previous generations of social movements fought hard to win is under assault.
In the name of guarding against ‘voter fraud’, a raft of Republican-controlled states – including swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin – have passed new Voter ID laws. These measures require citizens to produce government-issued identification or risk not having their votes counted.
Since obtaining a driver’s licence or passport can entail considerable hassle and not-insignificant fees, the groups least likely to have IDs are people of colour, the elderly, the young and the poor.
What do these groups have in common? A curious antipathy to voting Republican.
The problem that Voter ID laws ostensibly seek to solve – fraud at the polls – is virtually nonexistent. Under fire, rightwing election officials have vowed to document this purported plague on democracy. Their crusade has come up empty-handed. In Florida, where the Division of Elections initially claimed that 180,000 voters weren’t citizens, a subsequent search revealed the actual number to be 207.
As the Associated Press reported, ‘The state has more than 11.4 million registered voters, so the 207 amounts to .001 per cent of the voter roll.’
Likewise, in North Carolina, officials found that ‘there were only 12 instances in which a noncitizen had voted’. That state has 6.4 million voters.
While the fraud problem is minuscule, restrictions on voting impact on huge numbers of people. In Pennsylvania, as many as 760,000 out of 8.2 million registered voters – or more than nine per cent – lack adequate ID.
Needless to say, this is an epic case of a remedy being worse than the disease. Comedian Jon Stewart likens it to dumping beakers of hydrochloric acid into your food to make sure any dragon bones are properly dissolved. Surely you wouldn’t want to choke on one of those.
Law students are regularly subjected to the hoary but wise precept known as Blackstone’s formulation. It holds: ‘Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.’ Even if voter fraud were a real problem, an honest attempt to address it would have to wrestle with the question of how many rightful voters we are willing to disenfranchise in any drive to eradicate abuses.
Such careful moral reckoning does not seem to be a rightwing speciality. Conservatives are willing to strip countless citizens of rights, as long as those people are black, poor, and have the bad habit of putting their opponents into office.
When arguing about the effectiveness of voting in creating change, we shouldn’t overlook that, for most of US history, for most people in the country, participation in elections was prohibited. Property requirements excluded the poor well into the 19th century. Women only gained the right to vote in 1920 – better than Switzerland’s 1971, but still within living memory for some elders now at risk of losing it. And it took a Civil War, plus another hundred years of defying lynching and dodging police dogs, to have the votes of African-Americans respected.
The sentiment that elections alone are not enough is a good one. But it doesn’t mean that voting rights aren’t worth another fight.
Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website: DemocracyUprising.