Voter Suppression

William Temple, the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1942 wrote a short book, hardly longer than an essay, entitled Christianity and the Social Order. In it he argues that the Church in a democracy should maintain its customary self-restraint and not engage in electoral politics, that is, the matter of this person running against those other people for public office. Ordinary people of all sorts tend to resent the Church for endorsing candidates, and the action may also sully the Church’s reputation. Rigorous self-restraint is the better way. The Archbishop got it right.

He goes on to argue, however, that the Church has the freedom to speak out on issues and policies. And there’s more. Temple argues that, under the Gospel of Jesus, the Church must exercise that freedom. Quietism is not an option. This brief, cogent book, completely unlike Temple’s other works (mostly long and inaccessible), helped shape an Anglican consensus about engagement in the political realm.

I am writing this post to address a matter of public policy shaping, or rather, misshaping, the right to vote. I begin by noting that voter turnout in the USA is, well, embarrassing. This nation ranks 31st among 34 developed nations in the percentage of the voting population who exercise the franchise, according to Pew Research. Perhaps voter encouragement might be the better course than voter suppression, for what ails this country.  Australian law even requires citizens to vote, giving that nation a near universal voter turnout. People without a reasonable excuse and who do not vote are liable for a AUD 20 fine. I cannot recommend such a law for the USA, because someone, somewhere, would use the law in a malicious way, arrests for broken taillights all over again. However, the law is popular in Australia, having built a strong ethos of voting for which the citizens are proud. Almost everyone votes. Bottle deposit-and-return laws in Iowa and Michigan, two places where I have lived, are well supported for much the same reason. They provide an incentive for people to do what they know should be done anyway.

The history of voting laws and patterns is uneven. We do well to remember that the founders intended no democracy, and they imagined a strictly limited electorate, because they feared government by the mob. They reckoned that free white males over twenty-one, and property holders at that, had the only stake in government that mattered. The ethos in place during the formative years of the republic thus had casting a ballot as the exception and not the rule. Voter suppression was there at the nation’s creation. Not until the Jacksonian era did the requirement about property ownership begin to die out, and bit by bit the franchise expanded.

Extending suffrage to men (yes, still men in those days) of African descent by means of the Fifteenth Amendment led to a short-lived efflorescence in one important voting pattern. Ex-slaves and other blacks turned out to vote in record numbers, around ninety percent throughout the South. Oppressed people knew instinctively that the ballot provided the best means for leveraging change, and so they voted. When federal troops stopped enforcing open access to voting places in 1877, state and local authorities—white authorities—moved in to limit the access which blacks had ever so briefly enjoyed.

The first means engaged in suppressing the vote after 1877 came with threats and physical intimidation: Don’t try to vote, or else. This singular means worked well, and for a long time. And Jim Crow ruled. Around the turn of the twentieth century two other means emerged to suppress the vote, literacy tests and the poll tax. First, the literacy tests. There are examples of these exams posted around the web, and they strike me as substantively more difficult than written tests for a driver’s license. They are essentially civics exams interlarded with trick questions and brain teasers. White applicants by law were exempt from these exams, until the Supreme Court invalidated these exceptions in 1915. The effect of exemptions continued afterward, because registrars retained the authority waive the requirement for the test. Guess who benefitted from these waivers?

The only states to levy poll taxes were in the South, and the tax suppressed the vote with a heavy hand. Voter turnout in South Carolina was 11% in the 1930s. Tennessee had the highest voting rate in the South during the same era, 33%. Arcane rules prevailed in various states, like having to pay the tax at the courthouse, or only at a certain time, or the requirement of paying the tax in successive years in order to vote. The amount of the tax in Texas varied from $1.00 to $1.50, not so much in today’s money. My parents prided themselves on having always paid the poll tax, even during the Great Depression, when they occasionally worked as farm laborers for $1.00 per day. The tax was a lot for them.

The truth is that the exercise of voting rights is fairly easy to suppress, and each impediment to the franchise makes it more likely that the voter will simply skip the election. I found myself not voting the recent statewide primary, I am ashamed to admit, because absentee voting is such a hassle in Missouri—requesting the paper ballot, marking it, signing it in the presence of a notary, mailing or faxing it back. Secure online voting makes more sense, but that would be too easy.

The greater the poverty of the electorate, the easier it is to suppress the vote. Simply showing up at the polls proves a hardship for laborers or those working two or three jobs, and with a family to tend to. It’s easier to take a pass before or after a long day at work. Early voting and online voting ease the difficulties. When I lived in Des Moines, I never voted on election day, after early-voting provisions became law. Sometime during the month before the election, I would see the polling place in the public library during a routine visit, and I would step right up and cast my vote. General elections in Saint Louis invariably have long lines, with a wait time of a half-hour or more, itself an impediment to voting. There was never a line for early voting in Des Moines.

The most recent gambit in voter suppression is the requirement for a government-issue photo identification card. Such a law passed the Missouri legislature last spring, but the governor vetoed it, noting that it would deprive the people of this state of the fundamental right to vote. True enough. The legislature, however, appears poised to override the veto during the special session beginning September 14. For the law to go into effect, the general electorate must also approve a constitutional amendment on election day, November 8: “Shall the Constitution of Missouri be amended to state that voters may be required by law, which may be subject to exception, to verify one’s identity, citizenship, and residence by presenting identification that may include valid government-issued photo identification?”

The proposal seems fair enough to many, since everyone has a photo ID, or so they say. In fact, there are more without IDs than you might think. 64% of US residents do not have a passport, the second most common form of acceptable ID. 18% do not have a driver’s license, the most common form of all. This latter number account for the sector most vulnerable to voter suppression. As a group, they are older, poorer, and more likely to be other than European in descent.

Voter fraud, the crime which these new laws claim to prevent, is about as common as unicorns. Since 2005, there have been seventeen convictions under voting laws in Missouri. There were 2.93 million ballots cast in 2012 alone. There is no crime wave here. Moreover, none of these convictions was for voter impersonation, the crime which a voter ID law would avert. Every conviction was for registration fraud, which does not now, and would not with the new law, require photo identification. Oh my.

My hope is that the people of Missouri will defeat this proposed amendment, and understand the false assumptions touted by the amendment’s supporters. There is no crime wave, and yes, there are people without photo IDs. It is far too easy to suppress the vote. This right will topple over with the slightest shove. That’s what this effort is about. A shove.