Fans of the right to vote got two great pieces of news this week.
In Wisconsin, a federal judge has blocked a voter ID law that Gov. Scott Walker signed into law in 2011.
In both cases, judges based their ruling on one basic fact: laws like these prevent a huge number of people from voting, without solving any real problem.
Judge Lynn Adelman, who overturned the Wisconsin law, said that the law could block some 300,000 people, disproportionately black and Latino, from voting, and that the state’s claimed interest in the law didn’t come close to justifying that kind of burden: “the defendants,” Adelman wrote, “could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.”
Writing in January, Pennsylvania’s Judge Bernard McGinty pointed to real, demonstrable burdens from the voter ID law, yet noted that the state “wholly failed to show any evidence of in-person voter fraud.”
For years, this has been painfully obvious; even the most comprehensive, number-fudging conservative attempts to prove the vast scale of in-person voter fraud end up showing its insignificance. Any serious investigation shows that the kind of fraud intended to be prevented by voter ID is essentially a fantasy, orders of magnitude out of scale with the thousands of people for whom it would be a roadblock to voting.
Not that this evidence has any effect on voter ID proponents. That’s because “voter integrity,” the usual argument made for voter ID laws, is not about any real problem. It’s about who “should” be voting not from a legal standpoint but an ideological one.
To see why, you have to look at the rest of the vote-suppression agenda.
At least the advocates of voter ID laws have a semblance of an argument on their behalf, albeit one that falls apart in the face of the evidence. But the effort to limit access to voting doesn’t end with IDs.
In Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, a series of laws were put into place that undermined the state’s historic broad access to the polls. It started with the voter ID law, but this March, Walker signed a new bill radically curtailing early voting, eliminating weekend hours and night hours.
In North Carolina, the conservative state legislature responded to a Supreme Court decision undermining the voting rights act by pushing through major changes to voting in the state, cutting out days of early voting and ending same-day voter registration while adding tight voter ID rules (changes that have a bigger impact on black voters). Gov. Pat McCrory insisted that the laws were about “protecting the integrity of every vote” — there’s that word again.
Like Walker and McCrory, Republican politicians across the country have introduced strict limits on when and how people can vote. There’s no good-faith, publicly admissable way to finish the sentence “it’s important to limit early voting because it solves the problem of…” So leaders like McCrory don’t even bother with explanations beyond the vague mention of “integrity.”
What does “integrity” mean? It doesn’t mean “only registered citizens vote.” It means “only the right sort of people vote.”
Push a conservative on voter ID laws – on the burdens they cause and the evidence there’s no need for them – and you’ll almost always get to a point where they’ll say something like “if you can’t even figure out how to get an ID, maybe you shouldn’t even be voting.” And that’s where you get to the real beliefs here.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a voter-ID advocate, put this idea bluntly, saying that the only reason not to have an ID is that you’re “too lazy,” so if you don’t have one, tough, you don’t get to vote. In New Hampshire, former state House Speaker William O’Brien said you needed to limit voting access to prevent legitimate votes from being “diluted” by “foolish” young people. And conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, defending North Carolina’s voter restrictions, said that early voting gave Democratic campaigns too much time to contact and turn out voters and allowed “illegal votes” to “cancel out the votes of honest Americans.”
Yes, these laws aren’t about who is legally and constitutionally allowed to vote. They’re specifically about making it harder to vote so fewer, and more privileged, people don’t get their votes “diluted” or “canceled out” by voters who apparently don’t deserve democracy.
The evidence that these laws don’t prevent any real problem, then, is beside the point, and the evidence that they are criminatory in their impact is a feature, not a bug. The wave of limits on voting that have come from politicians like Walker are a power grab.
But the right to vote isn’t based on whether Phyllis Schlafly, or a state legislator, or Scott Walker think you “deserve” to vote, or whether your vote “cancels out” the votes of the better sort of people.
Kudos to the two judges who recognized this and stood up against voter ID laws this week.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.
Correction: This piece originally referred to the judge as Adelson. We regret the error.