Thursday, October 23, 2014

Numbers Game: Turnout or Turn Away?

Numbers Game: Turnout or Turn Away?

With the election looming, it is time for all people who are secret quants to turn to numbers.  I am going to start with two: 24 and 31. 24 is the number of people fatally stricken by lightening since January 1 of this year.  31 is the number of documented voter identification fraud cases—since the year 2000.

What does this tell us, besides being sure we get under cover when we hear thunder?  Let me add another 24.  24 is also the number of states that have enacted more restrictive voting rules in the last three years, presumably to combat a dread of those (civic) lightening strikes.  Then there is the number One.  That’s the number that Wisconsin Governor and 2016 GOP Presidential aspirant Scott Walker says keeps him awake at night.  One shattering moment of voting fraud—just one moment--would destroy a virtuous Walker supporter rights to choose his or her man at the ballot box. 

I am not the kind of person who wants even Scott Walker to reach for the Ambien bottle.  I feel his pain.  I understand the anxiety he must be experiencing in actually having to accept the judgment of an electorate that is anything other than handpicked.

So, what does an ambitious pol do, especially one with a ruthless streak?  How can you make all those numbers sing?

There is always the tried and true.  When you are pulling all the strings, it’s not all that hard impede people who want to pull the wrong lever: fewer voting machines, in fewer polling places, staffed by fewer number of hopefully hostile poll workers, lead to longer and longer lines.  And, when time’s up, it’s up.  If that’s not good enough, there’s always the dump-the-ballot box in the swamp technique.  There is virtually no limit to the type of low cunning a person or party on the make won’t demonstrate, and we have a rich and bipartisan history to demonstrate that.

Still, in this world of infinite media coverage, a little more sophistication might also be called for.  That is where data mining comes in.  Once you have identified who is likely to vote and when, you can tailor things to reduce the probability that “wrong-minded” voters will actually cast those “low information” ballots. Let’s say your numbers show that a disproportionate number of the “wrong” voters are shift, hourly, or per diem workers.  If they don’t show up for work, or work fewer hours, they don’t get paid.  Cutting back on early and weekend voting is the perfect way to discourage them. Or, you find that church communities pray together and then vote, as a congregation, after services.  Eliminate or restrict Sunday voting, and gain the added bonus of disenfranchising parishioners who are otherwise too elderly to drive. Concerned about college students voting in the states they attend school in?  Tighten residency requirements and threaten them with prosecution.  

Of course, while all those techniques bear fruit, the ripest and most delectable are the voter identification rules. These allow you to feel virtuous (“if I have to show ID to buy a beer, why shouldn’t I have to show one to vote”) while knowing very well that there are a surprising number of people who don’t necessarily have the government-issued ID required.  Are all those folk evil ballot stuffers and fraudsters?  Not exactly.  Only about a third of us have passports.  In rural areas, older folk were often born at home and don’t have a hospital-administered birth certificate, even if they have been voting for decades.  In urban areas, a surprising number don’t have driver’s licenses, because cities with good mass-transit infrastructure don’t demand it.

Before my conservative readers jump all over me and assume I am against voter identification laws, I am not.  But it’s not so simple, regardless of whether you like the result.  Is there any serious argument that one could make against the proposition that when government choses to put in place a series of new rules that have a chilling effect on such a seminal right as voting, it also has a duty to show wide latitude in accepting valid forms of identification, and in enabling those who do not have documentation to obtain it at no cost?

Sadly, those in the rule-making game don't see it that way. And, ever since the Supreme Court decision in "Shelby" eviscerated the Voting Right Act of 1965, it's been open season for legislation that is clearly targeted at certain groups, hiding behind a veneer of facially non-discriminatory language.  That has led to a lot of litigation, and the forces of voter suppression seem to have built a strong early lead.  SCOTUS is back in the middle of critical and highly controversial cases in three states: North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas. 

In North Carolina, SCOTUS permitted, pending their final rulings, the imposition of voter ID laws, and also the ending of same-day registration and out of precinct voting.  Minorities complained that the laws were aimed at them, since they often used same day registration.  And, who votes out of precinct? North Carolina State residents who just happen to college students at one of the sixteen state-sponsored universities, including Chapel Hill, or some of the illustrious private ones, such as  Duke and Wake Forest.  Think about that for a moment.  A North Carolina resident cannot vote in statewide elections because he or she is taking classes in a different precinct—in North Carolina.   

In Wisconsin, “Act 23” not only introduced demands for specific types of voter ID, but also included a provision that disallowed any otherwise proper form of government issued identification if there were any variant spellings (such as a missing “Jr.” a middle name or a maiden name.) The Federal District Judge assigned to the case overturned it on the grounds it showed pervasive discriminatory intent, but he was reversed at the Circuit level.  SCOTUS, interestingly enough, vacated the appeals court ruling in large part because the reversal came so close to the election and might lead to confusion.  Among other reasons, Wisconsin had neglected to mention to absentee ballot users that their vote would be rejected unless they included a copy of their ID when they returned the ballot. fascinating omission, wouldn't you say?

Texas, as always, is the big kahuna, and here SCOTUS permitted their new voting law to take effect, even though the trial court found that it could disenfranchise as many as 600,000 (mostly minority) voters.  The ruling is seen as a huge win for Texas’ Attorney General, Greg Abbott, who, purely by coincidence, happens to be running for Governor this year.

So, what’s next? Short term, we are going to have an election in which new rules will be in effect in many states. I would expect that even in this likely Republican wave year, there could be several elections that might be close, and it would not shock if the new rules were decisive in some.  Then, in this term, the Supreme Court will hear the arguments on the voter’s rights cases.  They should render their decisions by next June. 

Resent the idea that your vote is fraudulent simply because you picked the boys and girls in the wrong uniforms? Here is my suggestion to those organizations who believe their right to vote was taken from them. Document every last bit of it—every voter who was denied access as a result of the new rules.  Then, take that evidence, if you have it, and get it before the Supreme Court.

Why?  Because we need certitude.  If SCOTUS legitimizes these little tricks of the trade, then the losers are just going to have to be better and smarter for 2016.  That means a better ground game, more early registration, and help with obtaining necessary documents.

Will they?  There are a lot people who believe that going to SCOTUS has become just another place for partisanship, regardless of the law.  I acknowledge that there are Justices who have clear ideological preferences and want to pick winners and losers.  But, as an institution, I don’t buy it.  The legitimacy of the Court rests on its reputation for calling them as it sees them, with balance and fairness.  The ultimate disposition of the North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas cases are a profound test of that. 

One last number for you: Four.  Four Constitutional Amendments that include the words “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…”

Let’s find out if SCOTUS is in favor of turnout….or turn-away.

October 23, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Please join us on Twitter @SyncPol