Sunday, January 20, 2008

Voter ID and the Right to Vote

The lead story in “The Nation” magazine this week concerns the issue of voter ID laws.

Voter ID laws are allegedly designed to fight voter fraud – non-citizens registering to vote and voting in elections, thus determining our leaders for us. Those who are opposed to Voter ID law state that its supporters are not really interested in preventing non-Americans from voting, but to prevent Americans from voting. The argument here is that Voter ID laws are used to increase the cost of voting, with the knowledge that as you increase the cost of a product, you decrease the numbers of people willing to pay those costs.

The reason that voter ID laws are a partisan issue is because the Democrats are at least thought to have a lower marginal cost of voting than Republicans. That is, if you can decrease the number of voters by 1,000 by increasing the cost of voting, Democratic candidates will lose more votes than Republican candidates.

For example, an election in which the Democratic candidate would have won by 50 votes without a voter identification law, can become an election where the Republican candidate wins by 50 votes with the law, because the law kept 550 who would have voted Democrat, and 450 who would have voted Republican, away from the polls.

The article would have greatly benefitted from some empirical backing. It did point out that the Illinois state government, the state with the most restrictive law, could not point out a single case of ‘voter impersonation’ to prevent. Laws like this do impose a cost on the voters, and a cost on the state to enforce the law. If there is a benefit to be obtained from this law, it hardly seems worth the cost.

Unless, the benefit is what the Democrats say it is – getting Republicans into office. And the cost does not bother the Republicans because they are not paying the cost. They have shifted the cost onto the taxpayer. Capitalist economic principles fully recognize that when a person can obtain a benefit, and use somebody else’s bank account to pay for it, they are likely to obtain benefits that they would not seek if they had to pay the true costs.

According to the article, the Republicans are trying a different argument.

Lacking evidence, the Republicans have shifted their argument. Now it runs: “legitimate voters” will lose confidence in elections if they think there’s voter fraud, so the government must clamp down even without evidence.

This is an absurd argument. If the problem is with ‘legitimate elections,’ then the question becomes the legitimacy of elections where legitimate voters are kept away from the polls by driving poorer voters out by increasing the costs. If the reason that Republican candidate won the election is because Democratic voters were discouraged from voting, then we need to ask how this would promote the appearance of legitimacy.

Of course, perception counts. If one were to run an advertising campaign, spending a few million dollars convincing people that there is a problem with voter fraud that this law is fighting, then the law may give them a stronger sense of legitimacy. However, given that there is no evidence of voter fraud – that this proposition even serves as a premise for the argument – then this would be a case of convincing the people of a lie.

On the other hand, a campaign that tells people the truth of the matter, that elections become less legitimate as higher costs of voting keep legitimate voters from casting legitimate votes – an honest campaign – would result in less confidence in the legitimacy of elections, not more.

It is a bit strange, of course, to argue that a law is needed and important because the people have been caused to believe a lie. It would seem that a better remedy for the fact that the people believe a falsehood would be to tell them the truth. A remedy that says, “Because the people believe a myth, we must do harm to innocent people that we would not have to do if they believe the truth,” seems a poorer solution than one that says, “Tell people the truth.”

It may sound like the Democrats, in this case, are the more noble cause. However, both sides are interested in the same thing – creating laws that will give their candidates more votes than the other candidates. I suspect that if the situation were reversed, the Democrats would favor voter ID laws and the Republicans would be opposed. If either side happens to have the more virtuous position, it is because prudence and accident have put them on that side, not because they selected it.

One of the assumptions built into this argument is that there is an obligation to get as many votes from as many people as possible. However, many of the people who do not vote are people who do not care to go through the effort of casting an informed vote. They simply choose to remain ignorant of who the candidates are and what they believe in. Whereas an individual who decides to go to the effort of finding out more about candidates and their positions on the issues are people who will be less likely to be deterred from voting.

And if it is the case that one party, more than the other, benefits from the casting of ill-conceived votes from un-informed voters, this hardly justifies a policy of promoting the practice of aiding or even forcing people who do not want to vote to cast uninformed and apathetic votes.

This is not the case of people who wanted to vote but who are being prevented from voting. These are cases of people who choose not to go through the effort of voting. In these cases, it is reasonable to assume (though there will certainly be exceptions) that they do not much care to make a contribution, which means that they probably do not care enough to engage the issues well enough to cast in an informed vote. If they truly did want to vote, then, even with a voter ID law, they are able to do so.

It may sound like the Democrats, in this case, are the more noble cause. However, both sides are interested in the same thing – creating laws that will give their candidates more votes than the other candidates. I suspect that if the situation were reversed, the Democrats would favor voter ID laws and the Republicans would be opposed. If either side happens to have the more virtuous position, it is because prudence and accident have put them on that side, not because they selected it.

They both want to manipulate the system for the sake of obtaining political power more easily. Neither are showing any genuine interest in promoting the best political system. If they did, then they would throw out the weak arguments and rationalizations and engage in a serious discussion of which policies produce the best governments.

Of course, that is not a question that politicians are generally in the best position to answer. To a politician, the ‘best’ political system is the one that gives them the most power and gives others the least desire to or ability to reject their dictates. These questions are best discussed outside of conflicts between political parties.

3 comments:

The Decidenator said...

Alonzo said:

"if you can decrease the number of voters by 1,000 by increasing the cost of voting, Democratic candidates will lose more votes than Republican candidates."

Interesting. Can you point to any studies that support this?

Eneasz said...

I don't know of any studies to that effect, but I haven't looked either. This is, however, the common received wisdom. It is what you hear from all (almost all?) the news outlets and political analysts. Although, admitedly, they also couch their statements in "It is believed that..."

So anyway, there's the possibility that every news outlet and political analyst is wrong - it's certainly happened before. However it's not unreasonable to take their word for it either.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

One of the complaints that I have about the issue are these types of claims that lack empirical verification.

However, there is reason to believe that the Democratic and Republican parties know their own interests. The fact that the Republicans favor voter ID laws, and the Democrats oppose them, suggests that they both agree with the effect that these laws will have on elections - to lower the numbers of votes for Democratic candidates more than for Republican candidates.