Posts Tagged ‘States Rights’

Quick comment on voter registration

January 16, 2012

I find it curious that there are so many people who are interested in passing new restrictions on voter registration, and who it is who is interested.  Awhile ago, this story ran:  and more recently, this one:  So it’s an ongoing issue, now front-and-center in the South Carolina Republican primary elections.

On the one hand, this is presented as an example of the Federal government trampling states’ rights.  Surely, states have a right and even a duty to prevent voter fraud; requiring strict rules on who can register to vote and holding registration workers legally liable for any voter fraud is simply an attempt to prevent subversion of our democracy.  There are two problems with this argument, though.

The first point raised is states’ rights.  As Ayn Rand says, “there can be no such thing as the “right” of some men to violate the rights of others” (Ayn Rand, “Racism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 153 in the centennial edition).  However, she also goes on to point out that “It is true that the Federal government has used the racial issue to enlarge its own power and to set a precedent of encroachment upon the legitimate rights of the states…”  So that is one issue here:  is this a necessary concern, or an unnecessary and illegitimate intrusion by the Federal government?  But the other important issue is, are these restrictions on voting legitimate and necessary, or are they illegitimate and criminal intrusions on the rights of individuals?  Anything that prevents a person from voting is an intrusion; the only question is whether it is legitimate or not.  In the case of the Florida law, the burdens placed upon voter registration workers were so daunting that one of the oldest, most respected and most legitimately nonpartisan voters’ rights organizations pulled out rather than face criminal prosecution for accidentally registering a voter who might have deceived them by registering illegally.  As a result, many people will not register to vote, either for lack of knowledge how to register, or knowledge of when the cut-off date is, or for any of the many other reasons the League of Women Voters has found its work to be so necessary for so many decades.  In the case of the South Carolina law, “10 percent of blacks don’t carry government IDs, compared with 8.4 percent of whites” (see “Partisan Feud Escalates Over Voter ID Laws…” via the link above).  That actually doesn’t sound like a big deal, although that small percentage would be more than enough to swing an election.

Again, part of the problem here is the question of where the right to vote comes from.  If, as Rand says, our rights come from our human nature— or if, as others say, our rights come from God— then denying a person the right to participate in choosing his or her government is a denial of that person’s inalienable rights.  Denying a person the right to vote is just as serious as denying a person the right to liberty; it is just less visible.  We do deny people liberty all the time, if those people are criminals or mentally incompetent or something of that sort; but to do so without a damned good reason is nothing short of slavery.  But if, as these states claim, it is state that decides who gets to vote and the individual’s rights are dependent on the will of the state, then the state does have every right to restrict voter registration.  Since conservatives generally emphasize individual liberty, you would think they would want to expand individual rights, not find ways to restrict them.

It is, of course, legitimate to restrict rights to prevent lawbreaking and fraud.  Libraries require cards, cities ban driving 70 mph through school zones, and so on to prevent fraud and protect the public welfare.  But again, conservatives are generally known as the ones who promote individual liberty, even at the expense of the greater good of society.  President Carter lowered the speed limit to 55 mph on interstate highways to lower our nation’s fuel consumption and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  President Regan raised the limit as soon as he was inaugurated.  Cars are 17% less efficient at 70 mph, 23% less efficient at 75 and the fuel use shoots up the faster you drive (source:, so Regan’s policies made us more vulnerable to the whims of foreigners (even if we produced our own oil, the costs would fluctuate as the worldwide supply fluctuates; that’s simple economics of supply and demand, assuming you believe in free markets and the rights of multinational corporations, who are people too, to sell their goods to the highest bidder).  So it isn’t enough to restrict individual liberty just to make the states’ job a little easier; there has to be an overriding concern.

Conservatives are very concerned about individual rights.  For example, when the Federal government sought to limit access to guns, the NRA and many Republican politicians campaigned against this intrusion of big government into our individual rights.  From the shooting of Ronald Regan (which inspired the Jim Brady law), to Columbine, to the shooting of Gabby Gifford, the debate has raged.  It seems there are legitimate concerns about fraud when it comes to gun ownership.  Even children and the mentally unstable are able to obtain high-powered weaponry, which they use with alarming frequency. But conservatives would undoubtably agree with philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that it is better to inflate a right than to unduly restrict it; to inflate a right inconveniences society a little, but restricting the rights of an individual is a denial of that individual’s humanity.  So even in the case of gun ownership, where fraud and criminal acts are known to occur on a regular basis with the result that many people lose their own individual right to life every day, it is wrong to limit the individual right to own a gun.  The police will simply have to work harder to prevent lawbreaking that comes from gun use.

In the case of voter registration (as opposed to gun registration) a different standard applies.  There is in fact no evidence that significant amounts of voter fraud occur (except with the collusion of the local government, as in Chicago under the Daly Machine, which these laws do not even attempt to stop).  Here, even before a person has been shown to be criminal, laws are being put into place to prevent that person from possibly committing voter fraud.  It is as if tighter gun registration laws were being passed even without any evidence that anyone was being killed by criminals, crazies and children with guns.  Instead of telling the police to invest more money and effort into finding and punishing criminals who vote illegitimately, as is done routinely when it comes to gun violence, the states (Republican, conservative states, that is) are saying that individual citizens are to be inconvenienced and perhaps even denied their rights, just to make the state’s job a little easier.  And while fraudulent gun ownership often leads to the death of decent citizens, if there were fraudulent voting it would harm no one unless it were so massive that no one could fail to notice it.

If, as Republicans routinely say, it is wrong to restrict the rights of the law-abiding just to make things easier for the State, then it is wrong to restrict voting rights with new laws and procedural obstacles.  Only big-government liberals are supposed to sacrifice the rights of the individual for the greater good of the community.