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How to Reduce Polarization of Electoral Reform and Protect the Rights of All Americans

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How to Reduce Polarization of Electoral Reform and Protect the Rights of All Americans

Hiruy Hadgu

Last Tuesday, September 26th was National Voter Registration Day. I wrote about how to improve access to the ballot earlier this year. This is about a 10 minute read. If you do not have time to read this now, click HERE to enter your email to save the pdf.

One of the most striking episodes during American election season takes place abroad when U.S. citizens abroad enter U.S. embassies to nations where the rights of individuals are not respected, cast their ballots for the next U.S. president, and go back to join the rest of that country. It is paradoxical and yet the Americans exercise this right in those nations without hindrance. This act represents the hope and example that America sets as the government of the people, knowing that its power is tied to the ability of people to exercise this right, secures it for them. But as many are aware, this is not entirely true since the right to vote has consistently been secured such that it preserves a certain order. This order has disadvantaged minorities for centuries as political parties have created roadblocks at every turn of history form outright bans on voting to poll taxes to voter intimidation.

The latest reincarnation of voter suppression has been carried out by the Republican Party across the majority of the states controlled by the party. As of 2014, 31 states enforce some form of voter identification law [5]. In addition, states suppress votes by shortening the number of early voting days, repealing same-day voter registration, reducing polling location hours, and restricting voting by felons [7]. Adoption of these laws is likely to occur in electorally competitive states where Republicans controlled government [1]. There have been documented cases where the intent of those laws was shown to be for suppression of minorities [7]. Primarily, these laws disenfranchise minority voters, the poor, the young, and the elderly [3].

To the extent that the stated goal of election reform is to increase voter confidence in the election process, has it been achieved? Studies [1] suggest no. In the first place, there is lack of evidence of voter impersonation. Secondly, these reforms are perceived differently by partisans. Studies show that, “Republicans living in states with stricter identification laws were significantly and substantially more confident in their state’s election, whereas Democrats were significantly and substantially less confident” [1]. So what is the point of passing these laws if there is no broad based support and approval and more importantly, if it does not help achieve the stated goal of restoring confidence? Should it not be incumbent on those enacting these laws to reduce perceptions that voter discrimination will not take place? These laws are not being applied devoid of history. They are taking place in a country and being passed by a political party that has opposed the advancement of electoral progress at every point in history. The bottom line is this: Democrats think that these laws are just disguised to help increase voter confidence and in fact they are more likely to have less confidence as a result. Republicans have been telling voters that their votes have been getting stolen for years. It makes sense then that “electoral reform” laws become polarized because the GOP laid the ground work by pointing to groups that the party viewed as sinister. For example, Associations of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and Black Panthers. The GOP elites understand how the public will react to these “scary” groups because there is an existing biased view of the people that those groups represent. The most effective way to ensure electoral laws are not polarized is to use independent electoral commissions that oversee redistricting, voter identification laws and other aspects of voting.

Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), segregationist public officials implemented poll taxes and literacy tests in order to exclude black voters, which guaranteed the election of individuals who could protect the status quo of systemic racism on every level of society from public schools to the justice system. Even though the VRA started to shift the incentive system for political parties on how they were expected to get votes the Republican Party remained a white majority party as it felt it convenient to wage a campaign of dog-whistle racial politics to get its majority since the Southern Strategy. This strategy would not be sustainable as the share of minority voters increased. Unwilling to change its divisive politics, the GOP doubled down by ushering in a new era of voter suppression. The same politics and racial undercurrents, different tactics. There is clear evidence that not only is there “racially biased and otherwise uneven application of the existing laws by poll workers and other bureaucrats” but “these laws are passed almost exclusively by Republicans and further confirmation that they tend to emerge in states with larger black populations” [5]. Focusing on the voter identification laws, scholars have created five categories of voter identification laws: 1) no document required to vote, 2) an ID requested, 3) a non-photo ID required, 4) a photo ID requested, and 5) a photo ID required [5]. One study that considered the validated voter data provided by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study demonstrated a significant impact on voter turnout as well as participation gap between states with and without strong voter ID laws. On turnout, strict voter ID laws reduced turnout of minorities by up to 13%. Whites vote at a higher rate than non-whites, all else being equal. According to the same study, in states without strict voter ID, the white/non-white voter participation gap is as low as 4.8%. In states with strict voter ID, the participation gap triples to 13% [5]. The study states that “all else equal, Republicans and conservatives tend to vote at slightly higher rates than Democrats and liberals but that gaps grows considerably in strict photo ID states”. The turnout gap between Democrats and Republicans doubles from 2.3 to 5.6% when the strict ID laws are instituted while it increases from 4.7 to 12.6% between conservatives and liberals [5]. The study concludes that “the effects of voter ID laws that we see here are eerily similar to the impact of measures like poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and at-large elections which were used by the white majority decades and centuries ago to help deny blacks many basic rights…” [5].

Immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the Section 5 of the VRA, the then attorney general of Texas, Greg Abbott, announced that they will implement the law swiftly [8]. Any policy that impacts millions of people should require a phase-in period so how can a law that impacts potentially millions of voters be implemented with such speed? A proponent of voter ID laws can say “you can’t cash a check without identification” and this attempt to draw a parallel with an everyday activity can be successful in the minds of the general public. However, it is not that simple. Consider the credit card EMV switch mandate, which requires all debit and credit card transactions to take place using the chip technology. All major credit cards started the process in 2012 and have been given until October 2017 for a complete phase-in [4]. This then begs the question: if not to intentionally create roadblocks on a voting bloc that is not part of its base, why would a legislature require an immediate implementation of such a consequential law? A legislature that has the sole intent to protect the integrity of the vote would be cognizant of the fact that execution of the law would be fraught with problems. A well-intentioned law would first determine a baseline for the awareness levels of the state’s voter ID laws. Another baseline would be the turnout level before the implementation of the voter ID laws. The law would also require allocation of funds for extensive education, trials, training of election officials, and other expenses to ensure that the law is implemented properly. Finally, it would require that the information has penetrated a certain number of the population for broad awareness regarding the important aspects of the law, which would serve as a trigger for the full implementation. Additionally, the law would need to call for periodic surveys to ensure voter awareness has not fallen. It took years of marketing efforts so that consumers know to use their IDs to cash checks.

The Reverend William Barber reacted to the recent election of Donald Trump as well as the fight against voter discrimination he has lead in North Carolina by stating that “…the turmoil we are witnessing around us today is in fact the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction” [1]. The current wave of election laws are not simple electoral reforms to improve voter integrity. They are partisan, they are discriminatory, and they place burdens on Americans. It is not enough to just state the problem or complain about it. To those who want to resolve the issue there are solutions. There are many members of the Republican Party who simply want to ensure that elections are fair. Democrats also want the same. The first solution is to remove any electoral reform ability from the hands of partisans. Election commissions that rely solely on impartial methodology to implement electoral reforms would reduce polarization. Secondly, implementing such far-reaching legislations should take time to ensure that voters are not left out at every step of the way.

References:

  1. Barber, W. J., II. (2016, December 15). Rev. Barber: We are witnessing the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction. Retrieved January 03, 2017, from https://thinkprogress.org/rev-barber-moral-change-1ad2776df7c#.sg9mozsd8
  2. Bowler, S., & Donovan, T. (2016). A Partisan Model of Electoral Reform: Voter Identification Laws and Confidence in State Elections. State Politics & Policy Quarterly,16(3), 340-361. doi:10.1177/1532440015624102
  3. Citrin, J., Green, D. P., & Levy, M. (2014). The Effects of Voter ID Notification on Voter Turnout: Results from a Large-Scale Field Experiment. Election Law Journal,13(2), 228-242. doi:doi:10.1089/elj.2013.0209
  4. EMV Migration – Driven by Payment Brand Milestones - EMV Connection. (n.d.). Retrieved January 02, 2017, from http://www.emv-connection.com/emv-migration-driven-by-payment-brand-milestones/
  5. Hajnal, Z., Lajevardi, N., & Nielson, L. (n.d.). Voter Identification Laws and the Suppression of Minority Votes
  6. Hobby, B., Jones, M. P., Garanto, J., & Cross, R. (n.d.). The Texas Voter ID Law and the 2014 Election: A Study of Texas's 23rd Congressional District. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.uh.edu/class/hobby/cpp/voterid/
  7. Kennedy, L. (2016). Voter Suppression Laws Cost Americans Their Voices at the Polls. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2016/11/11/292322/voter-suppression-laws-cost-americans-their-voices-at-the-polls/
  8. Pilkington, E. (2013, June 25). Texas rushes ahead with voter ID law after Supreme Court decision. Retrieved January 02, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/25/texas-voter-id-supreme-court-decision