The September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone features an article by Ari Berman that takes a look at recent election legislation in the states and concludes that the Republican Party is engaged in a “war on voting.”
Here’s how it begins:
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.
I beg to differ.
Quite simply, the current state of play in election policy can be explained by three factors that don’t require belief in some nefarious partisan conspiracy to alter the outcome of the next election.
Partisan differences are policy differences
First, my experience in the field leads me to conclude that partisan differences about elections are motivated by genuine policy differences as opposed to pure electoral self-interest. If you look across the entire range of issues on which the views of the two major parties diverge, a rough pattern emerges: namely, that Republicans tend to emphasize the integrity of institutions and preserving individual opportunity, while Democrats focus on using institutions to achieve societal goals and ensuring that every individual has a fair share in the results.
Not surprisingly, this pattern repeats itself in the election sphere. Republicans tend to value the integrity of the election process; thus, they are concerned about the potential for the process to be corrupted by fraud. Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned about individuals’ access to the process – and thus are concerned about anything that might interfere with the franchise.
Given these differences, it is not at all surprising to see what positions the parties take on the biggest election policy questions of our day. Voter ID laws become a struggle (usually, but not always) between Republicans who seek to prevent fraud and Democrats who fear it will block access to the ballot by otherwise qualified voters. Democrats like election-day registration and broader early voting because they expand access, while Republicans are skeptical because they are concerned about the possibility that ineligible voters will be able to taint the outcome.
In short, policy differences explain partisanship – not the other way around. In other words, a legislator doesn’t favor voter ID because she is a Republican; rather, she is a Republican (in part) because she favors voter ID. Substitute “Democrat” for “Republican” and “oppose” for “favor” in the previous sentence and it’s still true.