It is election year in America. This means that voters and potential voters are deluged with all the muck PACs and action groups can dig up. The parties scramble to manage the image of their candidates. In Congress and in state capitals across the nation, politicians stop their partisan bickering over laws of substance-- and engage in partisan bickering over laws about the election itself.
Voter ID laws have long been a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats. By and large, Republicans favor stricter laws requiring photo identification, and Democrats oppose the laws, warning of disenfranchisement. The latest skirmish in this battle occurred on Wednesday in a Pennsylvania court. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"A Commonwealth Court judge denied a bid by civil rights groups to block the new voter identification law from taking effect, delivering a first-round victory to Gov. Corbett and legislative Republicans who pushed the measure through this spring saying it was needed to prevent voter fraud."
The first thing one notices about this story is the timing. The bill was passed in the spring of an election year, quickly challenged in court, and no doubt will be further challenged in last-minute appeals. The bill is a brazen attempt to change the outcome of the election. The timing hints at this, but the Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai made no secret of the partisan intention:
“Voter ID — which is going to allow governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
This is the heart of the issue. Voter ID laws are not about preventing illegal aliens or other unauthorized people from registering to vote. Photo ID laws have no effect on voter registration. The target of a voter ID law is a particular type of election fraud where a voter assumes the identity of a registered voter to vote in their place. By mandating that voters display photo ID, this law prevents the substitution of an unauthorized voter for a registered one.
As with most laws, the stated purpose of the law seems noble. No one wants to allow voter impersonation. Here is where the issue gets tricky: Republicans bring up the specter of fraud, but Democrats quickly focus on the possible disenfranchisement of voters without photo ID. One would think that legislators would debate the prominence of this type of fraud, and that the court ruling would take into account the danger. It quickly becomes clear that fraud is not the reason for this law. Besides Mike Turzai's bold statement, the state has not even attempted to address the issue of fraud. The Washington Post reports:
"Pennsylvania acknowledged that it would not attempt to prove that voter impersonation fraud—the kind that would be stopped by photo ID laws—had occurred in the commonwealth, or that it was likely to occur in the coming election without the law."
The Huffington Post added:
"Government lawyers acknowledged that they are 'not aware of any incidents of in person voter fraud.'"
After this quick dismissal of the stated purpose of the bill, debate quickly returned to the effect on the outcome of the election. The Washington Times has background on the impact on voters, especially in Philadelphia:
"If the ruling stands, it could affect the presidential election in November. Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in every presidential contest since 1992, largely on the strength of the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, where Republicans are outnumbered by about 6 to 1. But an estimated 18 percent of Philadelphia residents do not have state photo ID. Statewide, about 9 percent of residents lack the proper identification."
Remember, the state has made no attempt to prove that fraud has occurred. Yet it is willing to pass a law that could affect a large number of potential voters if the estimates are correct. The judge believed the estimate was high:
"Simpson was skeptical of the challengers’ estimates. He said he believed that more than 1 percent of the commonwealth’s more than 8 million voters lacked the required ID, but less than the 9 percent figure that opponents of the law submitted."
Opponents brought up concerns of disproportionate damage to minority groups. The Washington Times states:
"The ACLU and other groups opposed to the law said they will appeal. They argue that the law will disenfranchise thousands of voters, especially lower-income residents and minorities. Rep. Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania Democrat, said the ruling puts the right to vote 'at the mercy of unreasonable burdens on our senior citizens, our college students, on minorities, on those who don’t have driver’s licenses, and those who may have been born in another state where life-cycle record-keeping is, or was, unreliable.'"
Supporters of the law contend that efforts are being made to inform potential voters and supply them with photo ID:
"Lawyers from the attorney general's office, which defended the law, pointed out that the state is planning to begin issuing a special photo ID card for registered voters who are unable to get a PennDOT-issued ID and lack other acceptable photo IDs, such as passports or active-duty military IDs. The state also is rolling out a public relations campaign to make people aware of the law."
When all else fails, politicians like to bring out a victim, an individual who will bring out sympathy for their case. This technique has been used in cases both noble and partisan. Rosa Parks became an emblem of the civil rights movement and an American hero. Lately, however, individuals like Joe the Plumber and Sandra Fluke (who was famously targeted by Rush Limbaugh) have been used as if one person's experience can summarize an entire policy or issue. One of the lead plaintiffs in this case is being used to arouse indignation against the law:
"The ACLU quoted the lead plaintiff in the case, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia, as saying she could not believe the ruling. 'Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this,' the group quoted her as saying. Applewhite, who has said she once marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has struggled to get the required forms of ID because she lost most of her identification cards several years ago to a purse snatcher."
While one feels sympathy for Applewhite and her struggles to get ID, the tactic shows how far this partisan battle has gone. By implication, one side is associating the bill's supporters with the villains of the civil rights era. The judge found that:
"the plaintiffs 'did an excellent job of "putting a face" to those burdened by the voter ID requirement,' but he said he didn't have the luxury of deciding the case based on sympathy."
The bickering, appeals, and emotional ploys will continue from both sides, but this entire debate is a distraction in two senses. First, it is a distraction from the issues of the election.Lawmakers and politicians on both sides are pouring energy into the technical side of the election, instead of trying to sway voters by showing why their candidate will be best for the nation. This law will probably not change the outcome in Pennsylvania, let alone the national election.
Second, it is a distraction from the real culprit: the system itself. The point of a controversy like this is to stir up the base into anger at the other side. These issues are distractions from the fact that both sides are to blame for the real problems facing our nation: unsustainable wars, tremendous debt, and centralized power in Washington. Both parties have contributed to these problems, but they want to follow the example of the Roman Empire. Leaders would keep the people satisfied with "bread and circuses."
Today our circuses are the little controversies that mean nothing but keep people entertained. It is time for voters to refuse to fall into the trap of "bread and circuses" and demand accountability from both sides of the aisle.