How do people engaged in voter suppression justify it to themselves?
April 12, 2017 10:55 AM   Subscribe

In general, I can get into the heads of people with whom I strongly disagree. But I just don't get how people can claim they love democracy while actively working to deny voting rights to other citizens by limiting access to the polls (due to location, hours, limits on vote by mail, or making it hard to register). Can you help me understand this?

I should preface by saying that I totally get how people justify voter ID laws to themselves, and how elected officials justify them to voters. I don't need help on that one. Yes the "data" indicating voter fraud is significant is not compelling, but I can see how the idea that they're preventing fraud allows them to sleep at night and show their faces to their fellow citizens. Hell, I even understand how people used to justify literacy tests. On the face of it, if you don't understand any of the details or the real-world implementation, these things don't sound completely insane. "How can you vote if you can't read the words on the ballot??" seems like it checks out until you actually see what these literacy tests entailed and know that not every voter had to take the exact same one. "How hard is it to get a valid ID??" seems like it checks out until you actually try doing it while poor, minority, and trying to remain employed.

What I don't get is people fighting for shorter hours for polling places, or restrictions on early voting, or restrictions on absentee ballots, or other changes that make it harder for documented, non-felon citizens to exercise their franchise at all. I never hear how they argue for these changes in public. I just hear "they made this change and now all these poor/black/etc people in this district won't be able to get to the polls". And occasionally an email gets leaked where everyone on the thread is gleefully mustache-twirling about how the Republicans are gonna win for sure now that the polls will only be open from 11am-11:30am on election day. But when they're talking to local voters and trying to say why this is an OK thing to do, what are they saying?

Do they just say it's a cost-cutting measure? Is that the only fig leaf here? Do they just bundle the other changes in with voting ID laws and say that as a package this is all intended to make fraud harder in some unspecified way? What's the philosophical justification for robbing citizens of their right to vote, if any is put forward? The only other thing I've heard is something along the lines of "if voting isn't important enough to you to skip a day of work, you don't deserve to vote!" but I don't know if anyone who works for a living in 2017 is seriously making that argument.

I'd welcome links to opinion pieces in particular. I mean, if your horrible uncle on Facebook had a particularly cogent argument here I'd be happy to hear it too, but ideally I want to read an article from a major, non-obviously-white-supremacist conservative publication about why closing all the polls in black neighborhoods was what Abraham Lincoln would have wanted when he founded the Republican party.
posted by potrzebie to Law & Government (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The justification I've heard is basically, "We're right about important things, and it's important that we win elections. If we lose, the country we love is doomed, so taking extreme measures is justified."
posted by 4th number at 11:02 AM on April 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Last year filmmaker Ami Horowitz made a short documentary about voter ID laws, asking white UC Berkeley students and then black Harlem residents whether black people are less likely to have valid ID. As I understood it, the film's argument was that it is condescending and misinformed to think that black citizens cannot obtain valid ID.

Interestingly, in a Gallup poll, strong majorities of all races favored requiring photo ID to vote (81% of whites and 77% of nonwhites). But the same percentages of both groups supported early voting. There was a small racial difference on automatic voter registration (59% of whites and 71% of nonwhites favored it).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think the details (e.g., "...shorter hours for polling places, or restrictions on early voting, or restrictions on absentee ballots") are of interest to politicians who have very specific empirical outcomes in mind; I doubt strongly that the vast majority of voters who support the laws think or care much about the details.
posted by clockzero at 11:15 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

They have the belief that it should be hard to vote because if you have to work for it only worthy people can do it, or that the amount of work involved has to do with the seriousness of it.

I've seen this same disgustingness applied to unjustified medical barriers for birth control--they say that they agree people should have it, but they want it to be invasive and difficult to make people show they take it seriously.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:16 AM on April 12, 2017 [13 favorites]

There's a belief that democracy is only for certain people. I was on a flight once with a wealthy white dude from Virginia who wanted to talk politics with me. He just kept repeating "I just don't think people should be able to register at the polls, it shows they're not really committed!" and I walked him through all the reasons that people might have trouble registering in advance - jobs, kids, daycare, city hall is open 9-5 if you're lucky, and then I asked him what the harm in letting people register at the polls was. He couldn't name one, but wouldn't change his position.

All of us are equal, but some are more equal than others.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2017 [19 favorites]

Part of it is a vague lack of understanding as to why those things are needed. Not "gosh, let's shorten the voting hours!" but a short-sighted assumption that everybody is like me and we all need and want the same things. "Did you know that in Cityopolis the polling places are open from 5am till 10pm? Somebody was saying we should do that here in Townville, but I can't think of any reason we'd need to, I mean I'm glad the polls are open till 6 so I can go after work, but gosh, I'm usually in bed by 10, I don't see why we'd need to do that to our poll workers!"
posted by aimedwander at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: So a lot of the way that this can sound good, if you don't have reason to know specifically that the individuals in question are moustache twirling, is that it's pitched as equality, and in many ways sort of is or is meant as equality, in a sense.

So let's suppose that you have, say, 50 voting districts in the state, right? Let's say (I am totally making up numbers here) that thirty of them are rural, ten of them are suburban, and ten of them are urban.

Urban districts often have extra problems with voting - their high density and long commutes, for example, makes it harder for people to make it to the polls on time. Urban employers are often less generous about giving time off to vote.

So you have the question: should we leave urban districts open longer, or give extra early voting days, because they have clear access problems with making it during the weekday hours of 9-6?

And that's a really hard question, because if you do, even though you are doing it in response to problems that are larger problems in urban areas than rural ones, you are being somewhat unfair to the rural districts, who demonstrably have less time to vote. So the fair answer then seems like, "Okay, let's add extra voting days and times everywhere."

Well, the problem with that is that even though these things are mostly needed in urban districts, where there's no shortage of temporary, local labor to hire as election workers, and you only need to hire 10 x however many to run a polling station, now you have to hire 50 x however many to run a polling station, even in districts where everyone who would vote really has little difficulty getting to the polls, and maybe a few people use the early voting for convenience, but it's not actually really worth it. And the expense of increasing all voting places, especially when most of them don't need it, and some of them may not have local labor you can use, may really be prohibitive.
posted by corb at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

"Those other guys are voting fraudulently, so we have to do this just to level the playing field!"
posted by alexei at 11:28 AM on April 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I work the polls in my town, get paid to do so, and I think everyone should be able to vote all the time, so that is where I am coming from.

However, elections cost money, staffing polling areas costs money. The big thing is whether you feel the onus is on the person VOTING to make the effort to jump through the hoops in order to participate or whether it's on the people running the voting system to get the widest possible engagement. My take, as someone who actually helps developmentally disabled people vote and has no issue with that but also argues with people to put their ID away because we don't (and shouldn't, imo) require it, is that people fight against increased ability to help people vote for a few reasons

1. the inability to understand the lives of others (not understanding that someone might lose their job if they took a half day off to vote as a basic example, or didn't have a ride to the polling place or corb's rural/urban thing above)
2. the feeling that there SHOULD be some sort of minimum requirements for participating in a democracy, that voters need to meet "the system" part way (the literacy requirements, the poll tax requirements)
3. the belief that to have a smaller government you need people to do this part way meeting and make sacrifices to participate (the commitment thing, noted above)

I see it as a slider, how much work should "the system" do and how much work should the voter do? If you want small government you want less work done by "the system" If you are a big accountability person you want more work done by the voter. Registering people same day, for example, is a hassle. Doing so would increase participation. Counterargument is that doing so would hassle poll workers, cost money and increase participation by "the wrong" people.

And yeah ultimately I just think people see it like jury selection. The more they can stack the deck in in favor of people who are likely to support their ideals, the better. It's all a game to many of them.
posted by jessamyn at 11:29 AM on April 12, 2017 [25 favorites]

People with very stable, very mainstream, reasonably well-off lives radically underestimate how easy it is to live other types of lives without photo ID or much proof of your existence at all, and how difficult it can be to get ID if you are one such person.

Example: I was canvassing this Fall and talked to a guy about Pennsylvania's voter ID situation (you only need to show proof that you live where you do the first time you vote in a particular location, and thereafter you don't have to show anything--you can see already that this favors people who don't move around a lot). This guy was distraught because he did just move and didn't have any of the requisite identification (all that is required is something official, like a utility bill even, that has your name and your current address on it). He didn't drive, so no drivers license. He was being paid under the table, so no pay stub. He lived with a friend who owned the house, so no lease. And all the utilities were in his friend's name, so no utility bills. And who under the age of 60 gets other types of snailmail anymore? These are all very normal states of affairs for many, many people (living with a friend off the books, moving around a fair amount, getting paid under the table--which is illegal on the part of the employer but you gotta eat, so...) but I guarantee you that a lot more affluent people would never even consider that people living like this exist. And if they do? Well, they should just stop living like that, gosh. It's their fault.

tl;dr: there's a lot of people who secretly and probably even without articulating it to themselves in as many words, believe that only property-owners should vote, like the good old days.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:34 AM on April 12, 2017 [25 favorites]

(Should note that the guy in my anecdote was white. These laws target black citizens in as much as black citizens are more likely to also be less affluent, but the targets are people of all races considered "undesirable" including poor people, young people, itinerant people, and elderly people.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:38 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

They justify it as this:

'for the greater good' our candidates must win;
with these rules our candidates have been winning;
therefore, we need to keep these rules.
posted by calgirl at 11:42 AM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Alexei's point: this is what voter fraud allegations are for. It's a war and the other side is fighting dirty every way they can. What do you do?
posted by grobstein at 11:42 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

First of all, it seems unlikely that large groups of people consciously hold the suppression of voters as a terminal value. That's, like, Dr. Evil levels of implausible finger-steepling villainy to attribute to folks one simply disagrees with on complex political question.

Absentee ballots and early voting seem clearly to be the sorts of processes that would be vulnerable to fraud (easier to get a fake/dead person to mail in a form than to have them show up to a polling place). I haven't seen any discussion one way or the other, but if there's data to that effect, I can imagine someone who's interested in the integrity of the process concluding that reducing fraud>> maximal inclusivity.

It's not clear whether the polling-place hours issue is a question about positive action to reduce the hours polls are open, or a merely negative failure to expand those hours in response to someone's request. If it's the latter, then aimedwander explanation of inertia/ lack of perceived need makes sense.

The case for reducing existing polling hours is a little harder to think through (unless it's genuinely a question of scarce resources)-- but fwiw, there are demonstrated cognitive biases that make people value things more when (a) they perceive those things as scarce, and (b) they've invested a little bit to get them. So given that in American democracy good political decisionmaking supposedly comes not just from any old voting, but from thoughtful, careful voting by a committed electorate, I can see someone making the argument that adding some very minor barriers to voting could act as a "nudge" to produce more thoughtful voters, without doing much to diminish access in real terms. Nobody has to agree, of course, but the rationale is there.
posted by yersinia at 11:42 AM on April 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just don't get how people can claim they love democracy while actively working to deny voting rights to other citizens by limiting access to the polls (due to location, hours, limits on vote by mail, or making it hard to register).

A lot of it is flat out racism dressed up in patriotic garb. It's unfortunately just that simple in some cases. They want a democracy, but only of white voters or Christian voters or whathaveyou.

In a usually related aspect, some of it is wanting a meritocracy where only people that are motivated enough to get to the polls on voting day should be heard. But it just so happens that doing so will disproportionately reduce the voice of minorities, but you know, they're shifty and lazy and will just vote for free benefits for themselves, so it's for the best.

In others, it's low information and/or gullible voters being manipulated by cynics who don't believe in actual democracy - people fall for the panic stories about voter fraud and buy in that things like ID laws will solve it.
posted by Candleman at 11:47 AM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know someone who's so extremely pro-turnout that they come full circle and advocate for early voting restrictions because of these studies. (I strongly disagree with their conclusion but expounding on it here would be rather digressive. If anyone is finding themselves nodding along with that article, please memail me so I can make my case!) Suffice it to say that they're not evil and in fact think they are working to enfranchise people, even though that means their work is in this aspect aligned with their enemies'.
posted by teremala at 12:19 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With all due respect, I think there have been several responses so far that seem to be the commenters' cartoonish ideas of what a conservative Republican would think, without any real-world justification. I don't think that's helpful. As I've said before, I'm pretty conservative, and while I'm not a fan of voter suppression myself, I've spent time around enough people who are to have a clearer understanding. What I can tell you, definitively, is that nobody (***see explanation below) believes that poor, brown, or otherwise "undesirable" people should just not have the franchise. Quite the contrary, in my experience. A lot of people on the right decry the low levels of civic participation among marginalized populations (lacking, of course, the understanding that civic participation is actually quite difficult for many of them). There are several rationales:

-Absentee ballots are seen as ripe for fraud. At a polling place, your vote is private, and your ballot remains secret. This is not the case with absentee ballots. There's no real way to prove that you even filled out your own absentee ballot. It's quite easy to imagine people unfairly influencing absentee voters.

-There's a utilitarian argument that attempts to expand voting access aren't worth the effort. That is, the marginal cost exceeds the marginal benefit. Making up some numbers as an example here, if it costs $1k to open polls long enough for 1000 voters to vote, and it costs $2k to keep them open long enough for 1500 voters to vote, is doubling the cost worth it for 500 extra voters? What about for 100? For 10? Even you, as a voting-access advocate, will at some point draw a line where you say the extra cost can't be justified. (Otherwise, polls would remain open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the ballots would never actually be counted.) These people mostly just draw the line sooner than you would.

-There is a real lack of awareness that voting can actually be difficult. This isn't mean-spirited; they just don't know any better. I was unemployed for a while when I was younger, and I didn't have a car, and for a lot of people, this is is as hard as they can imagine life being.

Personally, I'm not a fan of early voting because I think Election Day ought to be a national holiday for which everyone gets the day off work, but I realize that's not realistic, so it's not a drum I beat often.

I should add that my information, while firsthand, is several years out of date. The Republican Party seems to have taken a hard turn towards mean-spiritedness in recent years, even by their own standards (e.g.). And political consultants, in particular, have both exemplified this change and amplified the win-at-all-costs mentality. I don't mean to imply that it was a gentleman's game back in my day, but at least it wasn't quite so evil. So I'm fully prepared to believe that things have gotten worse since I was in the game. But I do honestly believe that what I've said is still true for the common Republican.

***By "nobody", I mean everyday, low-level Republican activists, donors, and local elected officials. And I'm in the North, which is a pretty big caveat.

Pedantry: Abraham Lincoln did not found the Republican Party.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:39 PM on April 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

I've heard of concern around absentee ballots that they are vulnerable to fraud because you don't have to show ID, and that ballots may be completed fraudulently by someone other than the person who is supposed to be completing the ballot, especially if the requester is elderly/infirm/illiterate in English/etc.. There was recently a This American Life piece about claims of this form of voter fraud in North Carolina.
posted by phoenixy at 12:41 PM on April 12, 2017

I should make the distinction that, in practice, recent allegations of voter fraud have mostly been proven false. It doesn't seem like it's really a thing these days. But the logic is about the *possibility* of voter fraud. Even if it hasn't actually happened yet, you'd theoretically want to prevent it from happening in the future. Society should still protect the boy who cried wolf when/if an actual wolf appears.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:54 PM on April 12, 2017

Mod note: Couple comments deleted; folks please remember this is AskMe and stick to answering the actual question, not general discussion.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:58 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

New York Times, 2016/09/16, "Some Republicans Acknowledge Leveraging Voter ID Laws for Political Gain" (with embedded YouTube videos!):
Yet academic studies and election-law experts broadly agree that voter fraud is not a widespread problem in American elections. Rather, they say, it is a widespread political tactic used either to create doubt about an election’s validity or to keep one’s opponents — in most cases, Democratic voters — from casting ballots.

In April of this year, Representative Glenn Grothman, Republican of Wisconsin, predicted in a television interview that the state’s photo ID law would weaken the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the state in November’s election.


In Pennsylvania, the state Republican Party chairman, Robert Gleason, told an interviewer that the state’s voter ID law “had helped a bit” in lowering President Obama’s margin of victory over the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the state in 2012.


In Florida, both the state’s former Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, and its former Republican governor, Charlie Crist, told The Palm Beach Post in 2012 that the state’s voter ID law was devised to suppress Democratic votes. Mr. Greer told The Post: “The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates. It’s done for one reason and one reason only,” he said. Consultants told him “we’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us,” he said.

He added, “They never came in to see me and tell me we had a fraud issue. It’s all a marketing ploy.”
In some cases, various voter suppression policies are/were viewed primarily as simply a valid electoral strategy. High-minded things like civics or (small-d) democratic principles were never part of it. When you think of electoral politics more like a sporting event and less like a foundation for modern, civil society, it can be easy to be lured into a win-at-all-costs mentality.
posted by mhum at 2:09 PM on April 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Couple deleted, again this is AskMe, not a place for back-and-forth discussion with other commenters.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:10 PM on April 12, 2017

Oh wait. I just realized that you were explicitly excluding voter ID and the NYT article I linked was primarily about voter ID. Sorry about that. But, I suspect the underlying tactical reasoning might be applied to all of the other voter-suppression tactics although I don't have any hard citations on that front right at hand.
posted by mhum at 2:14 PM on April 12, 2017

Here's one other (rather specific) fig leaf that was offered by the NC GOP last year for restricting certain early voting, among a host of other voter suppression stuff (Charlotte News Observer, 2016/08/17, "NC Republican Party seeks ‘party line changes’ to limit early voting hours"):
“Many of our folks are angry and are opposed to Sunday voting for a host of reasons including respect for voter’s religious preferences, protection of our families and allowing the fine election staff a day off, rather than forcing them to work days on end without time off,” he wrote. “Six days of voting in one week is enough. Period.”
Yeah. It was all about "respect for the Sabbath" and had nothing to do with the very well-known and popular "souls to polls" initiatives by many black churches in N. Carolina.
posted by mhum at 2:26 PM on April 12, 2017

Best answer: Oh, here's a pretty extensive opinion piece on the subject from Phyllis Schafly (ugh) writing for Worldnetdaily (also ugh) in 2013, "North Carolina Embraces Honest Elections" (I'll quote all the parts relevant to early voting to save everyone from clicking through):
The reduction in the number of days allowed for early voting is particularly important because early voting plays a major role in Obama’s ground game. The Democrats carried most states that allow many days of early voting, and Obama’s national field director admitted, shortly before last year’s election, that “early voting is giving us a solid lead in the battleground states that will decide this election.”

The Obama technocrats have developed an efficient system of identifying prospective Obama voters and then nagging them (some might say harassing them) until they actually vote. It may take several days to accomplish this, so early voting is an essential component of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote campaign.

Early voting is a matter of state law, and some states don’t allow it at all. Lawsuits by the NAACP and the ACLU are seeking to overturn laws limiting early voting by making contrived arguments that these laws violate the Constitution, which is ridiculous.

Early voting is actually contrary to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution. Article II states, “the Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes, which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Federal law sets the date for national elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Early voting increases the influence of big money spent on campaigns because it requires candidates to campaign, to spend and to buy expensive television ads over additional weeks. Early voting increases opportunities for ballot fraud because the necessary poll watchers we expect to be on the job at polling places on Election Day can’t be present for so many days.

Encouraging people to close their minds and cast an irrevocable ballot before all the presidential debates are held is as harmful to a fair outcome as it would be to allow jurors to vote guilty or not guilty before they hear all the evidence in a trial.
posted by mhum at 2:55 PM on April 12, 2017

This is probably somewhat in conspiracy theory land, but I was reading some conservative news source in the past couple of months (most likely Fox or Washington Times) and an article about something to do with voter ID laws. Basically the gist of what I got out of it was that they saw the fact that Democrats are against voter ID laws as a measured strategy to increase Democratic turnout. In particular, I think there was reference to Democrats wanting to make it easier for illegal immigrants to vote, but it seemed to extend to minorities in general. In short, while from the Democratic perspective increasing the turnout of minorities through less stringent voter ID regs is seen as a strategy for increasing justice, some on the other side were interpreting that same position as a deliberate political strategy to win more votes for the Democratic party.

I'm sure there are other more valid reasons that people might have such as some of those mentioned above, but this is something I read on this the past few months that surprised me. It seemed to be seen as a Democrat method of gerrymandering of some sort. Even though I disagree with that interpretation of the main intentions behind Democrats/liberals being against voter ID laws, for all intents and purposes if Democrats improve voter ID laws it does probably mean that they win more votes.
posted by knownfossils at 4:28 PM on April 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

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