Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No photo, no vote

As you know, one of today's big news stories was the 6-3 Supreme Court decision upholding Indiana's law requiring a government-issued photo ID to get into the voting booth. Opponents of this law, including civil libertarians, are certainly right to argue that the law discriminates against poor, elderly, and disabled voters who might find it more difficult to come up with the kind of ID necessary, such as drivers' licenses. As the New York Times editorialized today, the law "solves [the] nearly nonexistent problem" of supposed voter fraud by "putting major barriers between voters--particularly minorities--and the ballot box." Moreover, the decision will open the door to every state with a Republican majority in its legislature to pass similar laws.

All true. So why do I have mixed feelings about this battle? First of all, as some of the Supremes pointed out in their published decisions, neither side of the controversy was able to point out actual cases where either voter fraud had taken place because a photo ID was required NOR actual cases (in Indiana, at least) where the law had actually prevented someone from voting. If that is true, then the debate has at most symbolic significance, and civil libertarians--by fighting this all the way to the Supreme Court--have inadvertently made it easier for other states to pass similar laws, certainly not the outcome they had hoped for.

In fact, I would argue that the fight over this law, while justified in the abstract, smacks of patronizing poor and minority voters by implying that they would not be willing to go to the slightest trouble to exercise their right to vote. Voter turnout in the United States is pathetic: In the Pennsylvania primary, for example, the figure I saw was that 52% of registered Democrats voted, which was heralded as nearly a record high turnout! Now, some on the far left might argue that such low rates are due to disillusionment with the electoral system
and the kinds of candidates we get to choose, and in many cases I would agree with this. But in this particular election, where the Obama-Clinton contest represents an interesting choice if not a fundamental one, I think it is fair to chalk this up to old-fashioned apathy for which there is little real excuse.

Nevertheless, there are certain conditions that make it much more difficult for the economically less well off to vote--but they don't really include the need to present a photo ID. One of the most important of these conditions, much more important, is that we vote on Tuesdays. That means that working class voters need to get their bosses to let them off to vote, sometimes standing in line for long periods--not to mention the travel time to get from work to one's local voting place. This is not such a big problem for wealthier people, of course.

We have been voting on Tuesdays since 1845, when President John Tyler proclaimed it should be that way. Why? Back in those days a lot of people had to travel overnight to vote, so they wanted to be sure that no one had to leave home on a Sunday. Sounds arbitrary, but true. In France, and in most European countries, people vote on Sundays, and the result is much higher voter turnouts. That may not be the only reason turnout is higher, but it certainly is a major one.
Although I have had this idea for some time, I am most definitely not alone. There is even a group called Why Tuesday? that has been arguing this position for some time, although it seems to be open to which day elections should actually take place as long as they are not during the week (that leaves only Saturday as the alternative to Sunday, of course.)

Now I am not even going to get into the arguments that some Christian fundamentalists will raise to Sunday voting, or that some orthodox Jews will raise to Saturday voting--other than to say that God would probably be thrilled if they went to church or synagogue first and then voted later (unlike so many pious people these days, God, if he or she exists, is highly unlikely to be a hypocite and is probably all in favor of voting rights. But we can deal with those issues in a future post.)

In summation: If we want to make it easier for people to vote, let's focus on major rather than minor obstacles to exercising the franchise. Let's vote on Sundays!

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