Republicans should not be surprised if voter laws becomes a major topic of debate this election season—they will be the ones responsible for making it so. Over the past two years, the GOP has made a concerted attempt in a number of states to tighten voter registration procedures, cut back on alternatives such as early voting, and—most controversially—require would-be voters to show state-issued photo IDs as proof of identity. Because there’s such little evidence that these changes are needed to eliminate widespread voter fraud, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many Republican legislators want to discourage voting among groups—especially minorities and the poor—that cast their ballots mainly for Democrats. But it’s worth remarking that beneath these crass political motives are some deeper moral issues. Proponents and opponents of these changes agree on one thing: Voting will be harder, and turnout will be lower. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Proponents think not. Speaking for many others, Florida State Senator Mike Bennett said, “I don’t have a problem making [voting] harder. 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 be something you do with a passion.”
There’s something to this, of course. It is morally gratifying to witness the joy of peoples who are able to vote for their own representatives after decades of authoritarian governments—even more so when they have won this ability through sacrifice and struggle that have cost some their lives. In the United States, the movement that enabled long-disenfranchised African Americans to cast their ballots represented a moral high point in American history. African Americans who participated or lived through that struggle have never taken voting for granted, and they have worked hard to pass on that sentiment to their children. At the same time, they insist—undeniably—that their struggle should not have been necessary: The struggle was simply the means to attain a civic status that every citizen should enjoy.
That is why African Americans have a problem with making voting harder, as should we all. It’s common knowledge that poorer and less educated citizens have a harder time navigating a system that is already the most complex least voter-friendly of all the Western democracies (which helps explain why our turnout is so low). Facially neutral registration and voting requirements will have asymmetrical effects, a fact that only the willfully blind can deny.