These fears are not new. Republicans believed that the Democratic mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, had stolen Illinois’s 27 electoral votes for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Activities in the 1981 New Jersey gubernatorial race led to a consent decree that prevented national Republicans from engaging in “voter security” efforts for more than three decades (the decree was lifted in 2018). The fraud myth seems to be a way to explain large Democratic margins in cities and neighborhoods where there are small numbers of Republicans.
Democrats, however, have their fictional monsters under the electoral bed. Belief that Republicans engage in widespread and effective “voter suppression” tactics has become dogma for many Democrats. The epitome of this paranoid tendency in U.S. politics is Stacey Abrams’s claim that she was robbed of the Georgia governorship in part because of a Georgia law that prevented processing of around 53,000 voter registrations (she lost by over 54,000 votes). Even though federal law requires states to remove people who have died or moved from voter registration rolls, progressives now regularly claim that any attempt to do this is an evil scheme to stop Democratic constituencies from voting.
Studies have also tried and failed to find an appreciable effect on turnout stemming from voter ID laws. The weight of the data shows that this is true even when the data are disaggregated by race and age, the two Democratic-leaning demographics progressives often allege are disenfranchised. Nor do the claims pass the simple smell test. Voter turnout remains high in recent elections among all groups compared with the levels seen in the 30 years after voting was extended to all 18 year olds. Variations such as the notable large drops of voting by white, non-college-educated voters in 2012 and black voters in 2016 are easily explained by normal considerations such as Mitt Romney’s lack of blue-collar appeal or the absence of Barack Obama from the ticket.
But these claims do have one big effect: They further increase political polarization and decrease trust in democracy. Democratic transfer of power can work only if the loser accepts the outcome. That, in turn, happens only if it is widely recognized that the process is broadly fair and free from manipulation. Once that trust is gone, the loser increasingly believes they have no chance to gain power through normal means. This radicalizes people and encourages them to do anything possible to keep the other side out of power.
It’s too much to ask for the parties to step back from the brink so close to the election, but it’s not too much to ask for a bipartisan, comprehensive compromise to be hashed out soon thereafter. Both parties should be able to agree on the principle of “one person, one vote.” Democrats will have to give on voter ID requirements to ensure that undocumented immigrants aren’t permitted to vote and that citizens cast only one ballot in each election. Republicans have to give on early or mail-in balloting. Some sort of national voter card tied to E-Verify with a number that voters have to produce to cast a ballot would seem to satisfy GOP concerns while permitting easy access to voting for all.
America’s democracy is imperfect, but it has still been a beacon to the world for more than two centuries. We should not let partisan bickering throw that invaluable heritage away.
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