The up-front case for voter ID laws and other measures inhibiting voter turnout is so weak that it’s generally assumed its proponents just cynically want to skew the electorate in their favor. After all, as a new Government Accountability Office study of Kansas and Tennessee confirm (not that anyone really doubted it), voter ID laws significantly and disproportionately affect young and minority voters. And given the virtual non-existence of in-person voting via a mistaken identity, the “voter fraud” rationale for voter ID is a phantom menace, while ID laws (and for that matter, restrictions on early voting) have no effect on the one area of voting most susceptible to real fraud (not that there are any recent examples of any great note), voting by mail.
But before we just dismiss the War on Voting as an expression of cool pragmatic skullduggery, I’d rise to defend the principled motives — if not necessarily the honesty — of many conservatives battling to erect barricades and potholes between some voters and the ballot box.
The idea of a limited franchise — on general principles, not as a response to “fraud” or any particular abuse of the ballot box — is a very old conservative preoccupation in this and in other “democracies.” Partly that’s because there is a powerful tendency on the right in most democratic republics to prefer more of a republic with fixed and limited public-sector policies and less of a democracy where popular majorities have greater control. And partly that’s because the privileges most conservatives would like to preserve for the stability and prosperity of society are favored by those who current enjoy them: those in the best position to meet any available test for voting eligibility, and least likely to be discouraged by inconvenience.
Unavoidably, conservative preferences for a relatively limited franchise have been mixed with other, less respectable motives. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and property requirements for voting may have promoted the abstract idea of a better-qualified electorate, but their overriding purpose in the post-Civil War South was obviously to keep black people from voting to the maximum extent possible as part of a general strategy of minimizing the practical effects of Emancipation. A few places — most notably Virginia under the Byrd Organization — discriminated against poor white voters almost as avidly as against poor black voters. But by and large southern conservatives were (and some arguably still are) more likely to respect racial solidarity than to pursue a pure class basis for discrimination in voting.
Beyond the general proclivity of conservatives everywhere and at every time to favor less rather than more voting, though, particular subsets of U.S. conservatives today have a more militant attitude. The new breed of “Constitutional Conservatives” (or “Con Cons” as well call them) — who offer a theoretical basis for the assortment of emotional impulses that goes by the name of the Tea Party Movement — are very clear about questioning the constitutionality of any action to change the governing policies they believe the Founders contemplated, which usually includes strict limits on the powers of the federal government, strong notions of states’ rights, near-absolute property rights, and for many, religious rights and even fetal rights.
Thus (in line with “this is a republic, not a democracy” tendency mentioned above), Con Cons are prone to fear that voters who do not hew to their ideas of legitimate American governing norms are not legitimate voters. Moreover, in an inversion of the “no taxation without representation” concepts of the original Tea Partiers, it is an ongoing scandal among today’s Con Cons that people who don’t owe net federal income taxes are allowed to vote. The idea, of course, is that people who don’t bear the cost of government should not share in its benefits, lest they “vote themselves more welfare,” to use the crude formulation of one contemporary conservative writer.
Now that, as alert readers may anticipate, is where Con Con attitudes have dangerously spilled over into mainstream Republican thinking. Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remarks represented more than economic elitism; it questioned the integrity of the ballots cast by those benighted citizens who don’t owe net federal income taxes. And while nearly all Republicans have repudiated Romney’s statement as politically suicidal, far fewer have challenged its underlying logic.
To a very real extent, then, today’s conservatives have an implicit fallback position to justify their support for voter ID and other voter-suppressing laws: it’s necessary to prevent “voter fraud,” but defined very broadly. From their perspective “fraud” doesn’t just mean use of a false identity at the polls, but also the allegedly corrupt relationship between a government-expanding Democratic Party and voters who might thereby benefit.
This is, as noted above, a more “principled” reason for voter suppression than cynical calculations that it will help one “team” and hurt the other. But it also means Republicans could persist with a War on Voting even if it — as Alec MacGillis argues at The New Republic this week — is actually hurting the GOP. After all, it’s a matter of integrity.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.