To hear Republicans tell it, we need ever-increasing hurdles to cast a ballot to prevent rampant voter fraud (which apparently only hurts Republican candidates.) To hear the Democrats tell it, the Republicans have imposed the equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests.
None of that is true. In fact, all this sound and fury over voting signifies pretty much nothing. According to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal by reporter Chris Richert, there’s little evidence that efforts to increase voter participation, like early voting, have resulted in higher turnout and there’s almost no evidence that greater security measures, like requiring voters to show photo IDs, decreases already minuscule fraud.
Buried in the story was a quote from UW Political Science Professor Ken Mayer that supports one of my quixotic efforts: going back to voting on election day. In a 2013 paper that Mayer wrote with colleagues they said, “We propose that early voting has created negative unanticipated consequences by reducing the civic significance of elections for individuals…”
I have long argued (with absolute futility) that early voting is a bad thing because it assumes that people have already made up their minds based on nothing more than party affiliation and because it discounts anything that might happen in the days leading up to election day, like oh I don’t know, three major candidates dropping out of a U.S. Senate race.
But Mayer articulated something else that has been in the back of my mind — early voting reduces the civic significance of that one special day when we all come together to do an important task as citizens. Democracy has its rituals and they are not unimportant. There was a lot to be said for the bake sale in the basement of Blessed Sacrament where I voted for 20 years on election day.
But I digress. The point of Rickert’s story was that all of this back and forth over voting procedures has had virtually no impact on actual voting numbers. You can read his story for the details, but the interesting question is why both parties are making such a big deal out of what is essentially nothing.
One suggestion is that in a state like Wisconsin, where the electorate is split down the middle, even a 1% impact on vote totals could swing an election. But the data on who is being effected by a given change is conflicting, and when several changes are in play at once it’s pretty much impossible to say which party gains and which party has a net loss. Chances are it’s a wash. And, of course, in overwhelmingly partisan states, like California and New York on the one hand or Nebraska and North Dakota on the other, 1% won’t matter at all.
The more plausible reason that both parties use voting as a political football (my apologies to Badger fans for the PTSD associated with bringing up football today — I should have provided a trigger warning) is that it motivates their voters.
It was telling that when Richter tried to get the party PR hacks to confront the reality of the situation, neither would answer the question.
“Make no mistake: Democracy is on the ballot this year,” said Tony Evers’ guy Sam Roecker, “and our state would be much less free without Governor Evers to stop legislation undermining the right to vote.” Well, yeah Sam, but what about all the evidence that none of the legislation that Evers vetoed would have had any effect on democracy?
Then Rickert quotes Republican state party spokesperson Chad Doran: “Common sense laws like voter ID are supported by 80% of Americans because voters want to have confidence in the electoral process when they go to the ballot box.” Never mind that his party has done everything they can to undermine that confidence with no evidence to back up their hysterical claims of widespread fraud.
A pox on both their houses.
What is, in fact, worth worrying about is not what happens leading up to or on election day, but what happens after it. Republicans are making a concerted effort to throw election certifications into partisan bodies with the ability to skew the results away from the actual votes. It’s worth paying careful attention to Secretary of State elections this year, including here in Wisconsin, because Republicans are trying to elect people to those offices who would be willing to toss out election results that go against their candidates. In Wisconsin, the effort will be to give the Secretary of State the power to do that, but only if she’s a Republican.
It’s also almost a dead certainty that next year the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of something called “the independent state legislatures doctrine.” Taken at its most extreme it could mean that legislatures could certify electoral votes any way they wanted, regardless of the popular voter.
So, there really are threats to democracy out there. But we do ourselves a disservice when we focus on the wrong ones.