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Editorial

Can't we all just vote?

Some GOP-led state legislatures are making it harder to exercise the franchise. That's a bad idea.

November 07, 2011

Republican-dominated state legislatures, in the name of preventing electoral fraud, are cutting back on provisions that make it easier for voters to exercise the franchise. Florida, for example, reduced early voting from two weeks to one week (because Republicans claim it is more susceptible to fraud and errors) and eliminated voting on the Sunday before election day. Ohio, pending a referendum, reduced its early voting by more than half, eliminated early voting on weekends and stopped allowing voters to register on election day. Georgia reduced its early voting period from 45 days to 21 days. Seven states have imposed a requirement that voters show photo identification.

But the Republican war on fraud is a bit of a sham, and cynical to boot. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal think tank at New York University, predicts that as a result of these restrictions, 5 million eligible voters will face obstacles to casting ballots. Even if that estimate is too high, the center makes a persuasive case that the new provisions will discourage large numbers of voters, especially minorities (who, not coincidentally, tend to favor Democratic candidates), from turning out. Twenty-five percent of African American voters, the center estimates, do not possess a valid government-issued photo ID, compared with 11% of voters of other races. Voting on Sundays is said to be particularly attractive to African Americans, and its elimination in several states has been seen by some as explicitly targeting black voters.

What's more, there is little need for these changes because voting fraud is rare. There is scant evidence of impostors showing up to vote at early voting sites, though there has been a problem with fraudulent registrations. (These are easily weeded out.)

The debate between the parties reflects more than disagreements about fraud. In its report on voting changes, the Brennan Center quotes a Florida state senator as follows: "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 not be easy. This should be something you should do with a passion." Another senator said: "Democracy should not be a convenience."

Obviously, informed and motivated voters are preferable to uninformed and passive ones, but to construct an election system that allows only highly motivated people to vote is undemocratic. And it isn't just uninformed and unmotivated voters who are discouraged from participating. In the 2008 presidential election, only 61.6% of eligible voters cast ballots. It's inconceivable that that number wouldn't be larger if more states allowed early voting, voting by mail and same-day registration.

The problem is not that ineligible voters are voting, it's that eligible voters are not voting. "Reforms" like the ones approved by Republican-dominated legislatures make the problem worse.

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