The New York Times has a sobering look today at the effort by Republicans in key swing states to limit early voting and convenient registration. It is a worthy reminder that the battle for political power across the United States is increasingly being waged over what electorate actually makes it to the polls.
The partisan impact of these laws is no secret: they make it harder to vote for groups like the working poor, minorities and students that overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Republicans have relied on preventing voter fraud as a pretext for these laws. This, however, is an extremely flimsy pretext – in-person voting fraud is virtually nonexistent, but this has not stopped Republicans from legislating against it. In Texas, attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has warned of an “epidemic” of voter fraud and backed Texas’s strict voter ID law. However, when pushed to give instances of this “epidemic,” Abbott was able to cite exactly 2 cases of in-person voting fraud during his 13 years in office.
Moreover, the broader package of Republican voting reforms bears little relation to preventing voter fraud. As the New York Times explains:
“North Carolina passed the country’s most sweeping restrictions on voting. The law did away with same-day voter registration and a popular program to preregister high school students to vote. It cut early voting to 10 days from 17, mandated a strict photo identification requirement that excluded student and state worker IDs and ended straight-ticket party voting, all of them measures that are expected to hurt Democrats, election law analysts said.”
The arbitrary policy choices bear little relation to preventing fraud (why would student preregistration be any more susceptible to fraud than any other registration drive?). The acceptable forms of identification are also unabashedly correlated with partisan assumptions: in North Carolina, IDs given to liberal-leaning students and government employees won’t cut it, while in Texas, a license to carry a concealed handgun most certainly will.
Recognizing that the voter fraud rationale isn’t fooling anyone, Republicans have begun to trot out a new reason to support voting restrictions: “uniformity.” This argument takes two forms. First, some Republican lawmakers argue that there should be uniformity across all counties within a state as to voting rules. This, however, doesn’t explain why voting rules must be uniformly restrictive rather than uniformly permissive – there’s no reason why all counties can’t have uniformly long windows of early voting, for example.
The second uniformity argument is about uniformity in the electorate’s deliberation – that is, ensuring that voters go to the polls at the same time with roughly the same information. George Will lamented early voting as watering down our (small r) republican ethic: “Instead of a community deliberation culminating in a shared day of decision, an election [with widespread early voting] is diffuse and inferior.”
As election law expert Rick Hasen pointed out, the credibility of this conservative objection to early voting is dubious given that it applies equally to absentee voting, yet is seldom used to critique that (traditionally Republican-leaning) method of early voting. Moreover, if Election Day were truly a day of communal decision-making and republican deliberation, then it ought to be a national work-free holiday to encourage both full reflection and participation. Instead, it’s a day where most of us with the economic security to work a single eight-hour job squeeze in a trip to the polls on our way to or from work.
All of which is to say that the uniformity pretext has little more substantive value to it than the trivial anti-fraud one. The truth is that the Republican push for restrictive voting laws is about simple political electorate shaping. Observers from Nate Silver to President Obama recognize the power that the composition of the electorate plays in dictating election outcomes. The last several midterm electorates have been relatively older and whiter, and therefore more conservative-leaning, while presidential electorates have been younger and more diverse, and therefore more liberal-leaning. The goal of these voting laws, then, is to shape the electorate so that all elections are more likely to look like midterms than presidential contests.
This project has become significantly easier in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision last year, which freed states from federal supervision over potentially discriminatory changes to voting laws. Yet as our politics grow more racially polarized, it becomes harder to disentangle race from party as the motive behind attempts to depress the vote – particularly as Republicans openly debate doubling down on trying to win elections as a predominantly white party.
The truth is that our parties have vastly different incentives when it comes to who should vote. Democratic incentives favor more voting, while Republican incentives favor less voting. As Slate‘s Dave Weigel summed up the Wisconsin voting restriction effort: “Cursed With Nation’s Second-Highest Turnout Rate, Wisconsin Restricts Early Voting.” Voting shouldn’t be treated as a game to be manipulated, and we shouldn’t buy the phony conservative policy justifications for crass political electorate shaping.