On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in what is expected to be a nail-bitingly close presidential election. Indeed, we may wake up Wednesday morning, as voters did in 2000 and 2004, not knowing who won. If we are extremely unlucky, the election will be so close that it will go to a recount and possibly to the courts. The state whose votes are pivotal to the election outcome Ohio, Florida, who knows? will see its election process go under a microscope with full dissection in real time over Twitter and Facebook. It would get very ugly very quickly.
If the election comes down to the wire in this way, and if Mitt Romney ekes out a win, then a series of election changes and administrative actions pursued by Republican legislatures and election officials, as well as challenges pursued by tea party activists, may prove to have given him the winning margin. While crass political calculation is part of the explanation for Republican pursuit of these tough new voting rules, there is also a deeper philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats over the nature of voting and democracy, a divide that the most recent skirmishes in the voting wars have laid bare.
From stricter voter registration rules in Florida to cutbacks in early voting in Florida and Ohio, to purges of potential noncitizens from the voting rolls in Colorado and Florida, Republicans have pursued legislative and administrative changes that have made it marginally harder for voters to get a chance to cast their votes. On top of that, the tea party-affiliated "True the Vote" group and similar groups have been bringing challenges to voters' eligibility across the country and have indicated their intention to send challengers or observers to Democratic areas on Election Day.
The burden of these Republican actions falls more heavily on poor and minority voters who are more likely to vote Democratic. These voters are less likely to register to vote, more likely to vote early, and less likely to have the time or ability to clear up a mistaken voter purge decision than other voters.
In a recent New Yorker article, Jane Mayer described the difficulty poor voters face in responding to often unfounded voter challenges. True the Vote uses a computer program aimed at finding addresses at which at least six voters are registered. Targeting such addresses "inevitably pinpoints many lower- income residents, students and extended families."
Mayer quoted Teresa Sharp, a 53-year-old African American voter from the Cincinnati area, whose voter eligibility was challenged by a tea party group. She described the hearing in which she had to explain that the challenger mistakenly described her home address as a vacant lot. "It was like a kangaroo court," she said. "There were, like, 94 people being challenged, and my family and I were the only ones contesting it!"
Nonetheless, Democrats have tended to exaggerate the effects of these new laws and administrative actions. Earlier this year some Democrats made unsupported claims that these Republican changes would disenfranchise millions of voters. There's no proof of such a broad effect. Indeed, some of the Republican changes hardly seem severe: Cutting back on early voting, for example, will simply cause most voters to shift their voting to another time. But in our closely divided electorate, the cumulative marginal effects of Republican-led changes could be enough to tip the balance in a razor-thin election.
Part of the Republican pursuit of these voting changes is simple naked political calculation: Actions that make it harder for Democrats to vote will help elect Republican candidates. Consider the comments of Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania Republican House leader who proclaimed that the state's new voter ID law would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania courts put the state's tough voter ID law on hold this election, after evidence that state officials seemed ill-prepared to get new IDs to all the voters who needed one by Election Day.
Turzai's spokesperson explained these comments as Turzai believing that the ID law would level the playing field for Romney, by removing Democratic voter fraud from the equation. But a Pennsylvania newspaper editorial scoffed: "That explanation is hard to buy, especially given that the voter ID issue something championed nationally by Republicans did not come out of any deep need in Pennsylvania. There is no problem in our state with people showing up at the polls trying to impersonate someone else to vote."
Whether or not Republicans are genuinely concerned about voter fraud and if they were, the first thing they should do is get rid of absentee ballots, which would eliminate the lion's share of voter fraud issues a voter fraud rationale cannot explain recent Republican cutbacks on early voting.
In Ohio, Doug Preisse, chair of the Franklin County Republican Party and elections board member, offered the Columbus Dispatch a different explanation for his vote against extended weekend early voting: "I guess I really actually feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban read African American voter-turnout machine. Let's be fair and reasonable."
But Republican cutbacks on voting go beyond the naked political calculation to a philosophical divide with Democrats over the nature of voting and elections. To many Republicans, voting is an exercise in choosing the best candidate. Under that philosophy, it makes sense to make voting harder to weed out those who might care less, or be less tied to the community, or be less educated or intelligent.
Jonah Goldberg of National Review wrote that "voting should be harder, not easier for everybody. If you are having an intelligent conversation with somebody, is it enriched if a mob of uninformed louts, never mind ex-cons and rapists, barges in? People who want to make voting easier are in effect saying that those who previously didn't care or know enough about the country to vote are exactly the kind of voters this country needs now."
Conservative journalist Matthew Vadum went even further, proclaiming that registering the poor to vote is "un-American," like giving "burglary tools to criminals." "It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote."
Under this type of philosophy, if voters are too lazy to register to vote under tougher rules, or not smart enough to maneuver through a bureaucratic maze to respond to a voting challenge, or not tied enough to the community to have a voter identification card, then perhaps these voters do not deserve the vote. Indeed, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who sponsored Pennsylvania's voter identification law, denounced the judge's decision to put off the state's ID law for 2012 on this basis:
"Rather than making a ruling based on the constitution and the law, this judicial activist decision is skewed in favor of the lazy who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic to meet the common-sense requirements to obtain an acceptable photo ID."
The Democrats' philosophy about voting and elections could not be more different. Democrats tend to see elections as about the allocation of power among political equals, and it is not the state's job to decide who is smart enough or motivated enough to vote. Indeed, Democrats' concerns about these new Republican laws is not really that they literally will disenfranchise many voters; it is that by adding additional effort to the requirements to cast a ballot, these new Republican restrictions will deter casual voters from bothering to take the steps necessary to cast a ballot that will count.
As with Republicans, the Democrats' philosophy on voting neatly ties in with the party's self-interest. These casual voters are going to be more likely to vote Democratic. Thus, proclaiming a high-minded commitment to universal enfranchisement also is good for Democratic candidates. It is no surprise that states which have adopted Election Day registration as California recently did for future elections tend to be states with Democratic-dominated legislatures. Nor have Democrats shown any interest in removing noncitizens from the rolls in the off-season, although noncitizen voting remains a real, if small, problem.
The latest skirmishes in the voting wars have laid bare the underlying voting philosophies of the two major parties, and the connection of those philosophies to each party's self- interest. This is a fight that's taken place at the margin, in technical changes to voting rules. Perhaps these changes will have no effect at all on the identity of the next president. Or perhaps they will be the difference between four more years of Barack Obama and a new presidency under Mitt Romney.