Republicans should not be surprised if voter laws becomes a major topic of debate this election season—they will be the ones responsible for making it so. Over the past two years, the GOP has made a concerted attempt in a number of states to tighten voter registration procedures, cut back on alternatives such as early voting, and—most controversially—require would-be voters to show state-issued photo IDs as proof of identity. Because there’s such little evidence that these changes are needed to eliminate widespread voter fraud, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many Republican legislators want to discourage voting among groups—especially minorities and the poor—that cast their ballots mainly for Democrats.
But it’s worth remarking that beneath these crass political motives are some deeper moral issues. Proponents and opponents of these changes agree on one thing: Voting will be harder, and turnout will be lower. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Proponents think not. Speaking for many others, Florida State Senator Mike Bennett said, “I don’t have a problem making [voting] harder. I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should be something you do with a passion.”
There’s something to this, of course. It is morally gratifying to witness the joy of peoples who are able to vote for their own representatives after decades of authoritarian governments—even more so when they have won this ability through sacrifice and struggle that have cost some their lives. In the United States, the movement that enabled long-disenfranchised African Americans to cast their ballots represented a moral high point in American history. African Americans who participated or lived through that struggle have never taken voting for granted, and they have worked hard to pass on that sentiment to their children. At the same time, they insist—undeniably—that their struggle should not have been necessary: The struggle was simply the means to attain a civic status that every citizen should enjoy.
That is why African Americans have a problem with making voting harder, as should we all. It’s common knowledge that poorer and less educated citizens have a harder time navigating a system that is already the most complex least voter-friendly of all the Western democracies (which helps explain why our turnout is so low). Facially neutral registration and voting requirements will have asymmetrical effects, a fact that only the willfully blind can deny.
But this argument raises another question: Are these effects necessarily a bad thing, morally speaking? Some arch-conservatives have gone so far as to argue that encouraging the poor to vote actually undermines just and limited government, because the poor will use their political power to take economic resources from those who are not poor. One such conservative, Matthew Vadum, put it this way:
Why are left-wing activist groups so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know that the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians . . . . Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.
This is a classic argument against democracy that traces all the way back to the Greeks. It disappeared from serious American political discourse when states eliminated their property qualifications for voting nearly two centuries ago. In practice, America’s poor have opted for the American Dream of equal opportunity over aggressively redistributionist politics—witness their rejection of stringent estate taxes, a stance most liberals regard as patently self-defeating and view with incomprehension.
The deepest argument revolves around the moral status of voting. Last year, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers said, “I think [voting is] a privilege, it’s not a right. Everybody doesn’t get it because if you go to jail or if you commit some heinous crime your [voting] rights are taken away. This is a privilege.”
This claim rests on an obvious confusion. Anybody who believes in the Declaration of Independence will affirm that liberty is among our inalienable rights. Nonetheless, certain sorts of crimes are thought to warrant incarceration, which is a deprivation of liberty. Does that transform liberty from a right into a privilege? Of course not.
The real logic is different. Our society presumes (as some do not) that all human beings are equal in their possession of both human and civil rights and that the burden of proof in restricting those rights must be set very high. Some people argue that no reason is compelling enough to override the right to life, for example, which is why the death penalty will always be a contentious issue.
Hardly anyone makes that argument about liberty, which is why life sentence without parole is widely regarded as a legitimate substitute for the death penalty. Without the ability to deprive some law-breaking citizens of their liberty, our entire justice system would come crashing down. But no one thinks that turns liberty into a privilege.
Voting is much the same. All citizens are presumed to be equal in their right to vote. Yes, most felons do forfeit their right to vote, at least temporarily. (We argue about whether permanent forfeiture is legitimate, even after felons have “paid their debt to society.”) But if we take the equal right to vote seriously, we must not pass laws that implicitly treat voting as a privilege some are fitter than others to enjoy. To confuse that right with a privilege is to change the understanding of American citizenship, and not for the better.