Unspecified Charges Of Voter Suppression Aren’t A ‘Better Politics,’ Mr. President

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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President Obama’s Tuesday night lecture on the need for a little civility and kumbaya in our national politics was hard to take seriously coming on the heels of legislative proposals with zero prospect of enactment, threatened vetoes, child-like flaunting of his two election victories and repeated insults directed at the majority of those present in the House chamber. Gratuitous invectives, ranging from an alleged war on women to accusations that republicans actually wish to damage the environment and take food from the mouths of the poor, have become standard Democratic fare over the last few years. They arrive daily in my inbox, signed by the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the president himself.

Among the aspersions cast by the president in his state of the union address is one that has to be particularly offensive to any elected official in our democratic republic. “Surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred,” said the president, “[and] that it’s being denied to too many.” When any public official declares that there is voter suppression, he or she better have some evidence to back up the claim. Who is being denied the vote? And who is doing the denying? If you believe the right to vote is sacred, claiming that it is being denied is a very serious charge.

Obama’s claim of purposeful voter suppression is of a piece with his post-election declaration that he heard the “two-thirds of voters that chose not to participate in the process yesterday.” His point was that, while his party may have lost the election, he was confident that his agenda remained that of the majority of Americans. But that’s not the way it works in a democracy. The voices of those who choose not to vote don’t count – unless they have been denied their right to vote. Presumably the president meant to imply that, had voting not been suppressed, Democrats would have won the election. But where is the evidence that people have been denied the vote?

In the 2012 general election black voters turned out at a higher rate than whites. Most analysts attributed that to Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot, but whatever the reason, if there was voter suppression it was not based on race. A recent Politico Magazine report shows a direct correlation between voter turnout and wealth – the wealthier turnout at a higher rate than the poor. Is this the result of voter suppression? Certainly there are no wealth qualifications to vote and the Supreme Court long ago banned poll taxes.

Once you get past the rhetoric of denial of the sacred right to vote and the claims of racial animus what you find is that the entire case for voter suppression is founded on the claim that voting is not easy enough. In a post election editorial urging same day registration, early voting and vote by mail the New York Times declared that “politicians have to stop suppressing the vote.” So what it comes down to is failure to make voting easier constitutes voter suppression.

Labeling resistance to early voting, vote by mail and the emerging proposals for online voting as voter suppression suggests that there are not legitimate reasons to oppose these easy voting prescriptions. But there are legitimate concerns that warrant serious evaluation, not accusations of bias and political intrigue. Election fraud is one such concern, but there are many others. Early voters, whether absentee or by mail, miss later revelations and developments that might influence their vote. Candidates face what are effectively three weeks of election days rather than one. Disinterested and uninformed voters are more likely to vote the easier it gets. None of these are conclusive, but all are legitimate considerations.

In urging the Congress to put partisanship aside and work for the good of the voters, President Obama declared that “a better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other.” Loose talk about voter suppression fails that sensible test for a better politics.