Voter ID case about politics, not democracy

Last night I had the chance to talk to Richmond's 8 News about the legal challenge to Virginia's Voter ID law. As usual, Mark Tenia did his best to explain a complicated political problem in less than two minutes; here's the rest of the story.

  • Virginia passed the law in 2013; it requires voters to produce a valid photo identification at the polls. The law's requirements are not as strict as some other states; for example, you can use student IDs from Virginia public and private schools.
  • The lawsuit, filed in June of last year, is brought by the Democratic Party of Virginia. It's part of a coordinated effort by the national Party to challenge electoral laws that they believe have limited the party in recent state and national elections. (The Virginia redistricting lawsuit you may have heard about is also part of this effort.)
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures offers a nice history of voter ID laws. What they neglect to mention, though, is that the recent efforts towards voter ID are part of a nationally coordinated effort by a Republican-affiliated group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). This group epitomizes a smart strategy by conservative activists; long ago they recognized that a lot of politics happen at the state level. So ALEC generates model bills for state legislators that favor conservative causes and Republican politicians, including a model voter ID bill.
  • Republicans typically defend voter ID by saying that the law prevents voter fraud. But the kind of fraud that voter ID would protect against -- voter impersonation -- is extremely rare. We just have no evidence that this happens on any kind of wide scale, if at all. (The other claim supporters often make - that it promotes public confidence in election results - seems only true for Republican voters.)
  • Democrats claim that the laws have already suppressed turnout. However, the evidence isn't so clear. For example, in 2014 a non-partisan voter protection group noted a 30% increase in voter complaints about polling problems nationwide. But how many problems were caused by voter ID (or just its first-time implementation), and how many by the other standard problems caused by America's patchwork electoral system? The Fair Elections Legal Network also noted mixed evidence in 2014, with turnout up and down depending on the state. The Democrats are going to have trouble establishing effects in this case; they even opened the trial with a 69-year-old black woman who was forced to file a provisional ballot in 2014. Guess what? Her vote was counted.
  • It's unlikely that the Virginia law will be overturned -- the judge hearing the case was the first to strike down Obamacare -- but at some point one of the Democratic suits should start to make its way up the appeals chain. Anything that happens will almost certainly be too late for the 2016 Presidential election, though.

The bottom line: each side is playing politics. Smart politics, to be sure; maybe the best way to win a game is to make sure the rules favor you from the beginning. Still, if you like popular participation in democratic politics, you should favor the Dems on this one, as they're on the side of more voters rather than less.

Want to know more? Watch John Oliver. (Every political story is more interesting with a British accent.)

Democracy: Inconvenient for political parties

This past weekend, the League of Women Voters hosted an event in Richmond to train organizations that want to hold voter registration drives. This is generally a good thing; voting is our most basic political right, and we should provide resources to groups to help them get more people to vote. (H/t to Delegate Betsy Carr for promoting the event through an e-mail to at least some constituents, which is how I found out about it.)

So what's the problem? The training is actually REQUIRED of groups that want to hold voter drives in Virginia. Based on a 2013 law, if your organization requests at least 25 voter registration forms, you have to complete the training. The Virginia Board of Elections offers some training classes (including the one sponsored by the LWV noted above), and some local offices may do so also. You can also complete a 30-minute online training course.

Maybe that doesn't seem so much a burden. But it's yet another restriction that makes it harder for people to vote. Advance voter registration is outdated and pretty useless to begin with, and now the state has made it so groups have to jump through more hoops to try to ease the process for people. And it's not just the training; the 2013 law also prevents groups from pre-populating the form at all (to enter in zip codes, say), and discourages photocopying.

This particular 2013 law was in some ways a response to the ridiculous ACORN "scandal" manufactured by conservative gadfly (and serial liar) James O'Keefe. O'Keefe used doctored videos to claim that ACORN was committing voter fraud on a vast scale, even though a series of state investigations exonerated the organization.

But the VA law is part of a bigger picture, one in which the two parties collude to restrict the electorate in various ways. Republicans are more guilty of these restrictions, in part because a chief piece of their electoral strategy is preventing Democratic voters from getting to the polls. But both parties are guilty of making it harder, and not easier, to vote.

In some ways, the two main parties act as cartels, using the rules of the game to maintain their powerful position. (Politics nerds can review the much-cited work of political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair on party cartels.) Even the #2 spot in a two-party system of collusion is better than being one of a group of also-rans. So parties create a system that makes the electorate easier to manage, as well as all the other rules that keep them on top. (Like the rules that restrict external third party challenges and internal outsider candidacies, as I noted last week.)

The textbook I use in my American Government course describes American political history as a battle between elite democrats, who want to restrict participation, and more popular democrats. But even elite dems (who include our founding fathers, by the way) think that the masses should be able to voice their concerns through elections. Instead, our current rules tend toward an aristocracy - rule by the wise, supposedly, but really those with resources.

If you want to have a democracy, and not rule by the rich, then one thing you can do is make it easy to vote. Our political parties are doing the exact opposite.

Party rules squeeze out challengers

As if voting wasn't complicated enough, voters in the Virginia 7th will now have to face two different elections on November 4. Because Eric Cantor has effectively resigned his office instead of waiting until his term is up, the Governor has added a special election to the ballot.

So voters will have to make two choices: who will finish the rest of Cantor's term this year, and who will take over the seat in 2015. Of course, most will choose the same guy, but it will almost certainly confuse some folks.

And there may be one big difference in the two simultaneous elections: Libertarian candidate James Carr will most likely NOT be on the special election ballot. Why? Because state rules automatically place major-party candidates on the ballot, but force third parties to collect 1,000 signatures. Carr is unlikely to be able to gather that many in just a few weeks.

Carr appealed to the state election board, which quite rightly said they could do nothing, as the law is clear. But that's the point: the system is rigged to prevent challengers from having much of a chance against the two main parties. Democrats and Republicans may be ideologically opposed to each other, but they both conspire to control the electoral process.

The rules also work to limit challengers within parties, as well. For special elections, parties organize meetings where members can vote to select the candidate. (Trammell was already chosen at such a meeting.) Brat, leaving nothing to chance, warned supporters in an e-mail last week to turn out for this week's Republican mass meeting:

While it only makes sense that the person elected to serve in January also be elected to serve in the lame duck session, other potential candidates could register over the next week to run for the nomination.  That’s why it’s so important that our team shows up in huge numbers to vote on August 14th.

Brat is now well-ensconced as the Republican candidate, so he shouldn't face any challenge. But he really needn't have worried; the party rules note that unless anyone files to face him in a vote for the special election, the meeting will be cancelled. And oh yeah: if you want to challenge Brat, you need to pay the party a $2,500 fee.

Sure, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why these rules are in place; you want serious candidates only, people would run their cats for office, yadda yadda. The net effect of all of these rules, though, is to severely restrict voting choices. If you're wondering why most elections seem to offer a choice between Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee, it's because that's exactly the way the parties want it.