In today’s issue of the Austin American Statesman a longtime political journalist, Glenn W. Smith, argues against Texas’ voter ID laws. The full text of his opinion piece is copied below.
Wonder no more why American right-wing extremists have carried out a 50-year campaign “to undercut or dismantle [the] most important requirements” of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, as the New York Times described their effort. One answer lies in a little-noticed 2003 worldwide study of 38 democracies.
The Journal of Public Economics study, by Dennis C. Mueller and Thomas Stratmann, found that increased voter turnout led to more equal distributions of income. “Citizen participation has a direct negative effect on income inequality,” the authors wrote.
If you want a bigger piece of the economic pie and you can get control of enough political kitchens, cook up new voter suppression laws that place barriers between citizens and the polls. The voter suppression chefs have done just that. In 2014, voter turnout in the U.S. was 36.3 percent, the lowest since World War II. Income inequality is the highest it has been since 1928.
The Mueller/Thomas study also found that as democracies weaken — measured by the ease with which citizen preferences are enacted — the wealthy find ways of looting national treasuries. Here the looting often takes the form of privatized schools, prisons and, if conservatives had their way, Social Security. Corruption grows along with voter suppression. Public tax money finds its way into privileged pockets while public benefits shrink.
Many tea party conservatives who rightly condemn political corruption are also supporters of voter suppression efforts, diminishing their own anti-corruption hopes.
In 2013 conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court voted to gut the Voting Rights Act by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Justice from enforcing its key provision. The provision required Justice Department approval of changes in voting procedures in states with a history of discrimination. Texas was one of those states.
Since then, in those states Republicans control, there has been a veritable feast of voter suppression laws served to and for anti-democratic gluttons. Early voting periods and numbers of polling places have been reduced. Ridiculous voter identification laws have been passed. The Texas Voter ID law, now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, disallows university student IDs but allows gun licenses. Another Texas effort, this one to undermine the longstanding “one man-one vote” precedent, was overruled by the Supreme Court just last week.
Of course, there are other motivations behind the national rage in voter suppression laws. Advocates often bat their eyes innocently and claim they are only trying to prevent “voter fraud.” However, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, “voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly nonexistent, and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”
Racism plays its role. Voter suppressors might be too smart to say so out loud, but many believe their racial superiority justifies the suppression of Hispanic and African-American votes. Others who hold no conscious racial animosities are just following the path of the political club they joined.
America’s political parties have long histories of designing election mechanisms — a polite way of writing “rigging elections” — that improve their chances at the polls. However, historical habit and claims that “the other guys do it” are no excuse.
As noted above, it is not lost on some greedy cynics that voter suppression helps the selfish grow ever wealthier. Others sincerely believe in a kind of “elite democracy” that diminishes the role of everyday voters in favor of privileged experts.
Even after identifying some of their motivations it remains difficult to fully understand Americans who claim devotion to democracy while undermining its most critical feature: the right of every citizen to self-government through access to the polls.
Voter suppression is a recipe for wage suppression. If we want better pay for our labors, equal pay for equal work and an economy that provides opportunities to advance, it all begins with voting rights. Instead of creating barriers to the polls, we should be making voting easy, with broader mail-in and Internet voting opportunities, longer early voting periods, election-day holidays and same-day registration.
We’ll repeal voter identification laws and other barriers to voting and pass the reforms above if we want democracy instead of plutocracy or oligarchy.