Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Power of the Vote

Today is an election day.

It's one of those off years elections that many people across America will pass over. But in Virginia the day will end with a new governor, and the city of Boston will have it's first new mayor in 20 years. Today is an exhibition of the single most extraordinary function of our government. At all levels of government we are preparing to execute a peaceful transition of power based solely on the direct votes of the majority of constituents in the given city, state, or district.

But lately the right to vote has come under serious fire. The largest blow came six months ago when the Supreme Court struck down the central part of the historic Voting Rights Act citing a changed country where historical discrimination was apparently no longer relevant. But this law was not some antiquated notion. The Voting Rights Act was overwhelmingly reauthorized in 2006 by a bipartisan vote of 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. The elected officials of this country regardless of party made a clear decision that the Voting Rights Act was right and good. And yet the Supreme Court, struck down these valuable protections.

I was working in D.C. at the time of the decision and on that day was taking my new batch of summer interns to a tour of the Capitol. The tour starts out with a video presentation on the history of Congress, and at one point it flashes across the screen the names of the more well known pieces of legislation. And there was the Voting Rights Act front and center. The weird cosmic irony in seeing this accomplishment touted the same day it was being undone gave me a chill. And today I read something that brought that chill back.

Texas was one of the first states to act quickly following the Supreme Court decision. Their voter ID law had previously been required by the Voting Rights Act to get federal approval. They had been rightly denied in this case by the Department of Justice. But once the law was struck down they moved quickly to put their voter ID law into place, and today the first small effects of that decision will be felt.

Three days ago, former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright went to go get a voter ID card. At the age of 90, he no longer drives and thus he never renewed his license when it expired in 2010. His TCU faculty ID doesn't qualify as a photo ID either. Knowing that this would prevent him from voting, he went to the Department of Public Safety Office to get himself one of these voter ID cards. And he was denied.

 I would like to repeat that. A former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives tried to get a Texas voter ID card and was denied.

While clearly his situation will be addressed and he will be able to vote, what does this mean for every other senior citizen who hasn't bothered to renew their license. What will they do when they get denied their basic right, and don't have the title to make headline news?

From any practical perspective, voter ID laws just don't make sense. Voter fraud is negligible. It barely ever happens, and it's easy to figure out why. Voting is the original collective action problem. It's the classic case wherein no one individual's vote has any ability to make any measurable difference, but yet if everyone neglects it, the system fails. No one reasonably votes with the expectation of changing the outcome of the election. So why would anyone in their right mind commit voter fraud. Who breaks the law when they will achieve no measurable gain?

Once you accept the reality, that voter fraud is completely irrational, you also have to accept that all barriers to the voting process are detrimental. Because voting is a collective action problem, the only thing that does bring voters to the polls is a sense of civic duty. When we knew we can't affect the outcome on our own, the only reason we vote, is because we rightly believe that its our moral responsibility as citizens. And every barrier or cost that is introduced threatens to overcome that responsibility.

The state of Texas points out that anyone without an ID can cast a "provisional ballot" and follow up in 6 days to get an ID to validate the ballot. But this puts a burden on the voter. What about those who don't drive anymore and don't have regular transport? What about those who work and have kids? Because people vote not based on personal gain but on duty, there is no way to justify them accepting this time cost.

In fact when you consider it, we ought to be making voting easier. Why isn't election day a federal holiday? It would be far more noble to take a day off from work to vote than it is to take one celebrating Christopher Columbus. Or if that's too much to ask, why not allow everyone to mail in their ballots? Speaking from experience, voting absentee requires much less effort than standing in line on election day, and there's no logical reason why every citizen can't experience the process with the same ease. It's time to voting easier and put less barriers in the way of voting. We can't fix the problems in our government with over 40% of the country unrepresented in our highest elections. It's time we got power back to the people, and it all starts with the vote.

P.S. I purposefully avoided the racist and political undertones of voter ID laws, because our clip of the week from October 26 already covered that aspect. If it you missed it, go back and watch. It's equally hilarious and terrifying.

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