A Sad Day for Our Democracy

Thanks to a sluggish economy, and restrictive voter identification laws from Republican lawmakers, voter registration is down for the first time in years. In particular, registration among African Americans and Latinos has taken a plunge:

Together, the number of registered blacks and Hispanics across the country declined by 2 million from 2008 to late 2010, when the Census Bureau collected the data through its Current Population Survey.

The figure among blacks is down 7 percent, to just over 16 million. Among whites, it dropped 6 percent to 104 million.

Among Latinos, the decline has altered a trend line of steady growth. Given that 12 million Latinos were registered to vote in 2008, some analysts had projected the number would grow to 13 million in 2010 and 14 million this election cycle. Instead, it fell in 2010 to 11 million.

I would hold off on declaring doom for President Obama’s reelection effort. The Obama campaign has spent millions of dollars on building field offices, registering voters, and navigating the new laws. My hunch is that, at the end of the day, these restrictions won’t have as much as affect as we think on the Obama campaign’s ability to mobilize minority voters.

Of course, the horse race is the least important aspect of this development; what should worry everyone is the degree to which the Republican Party has normalized the idea that there ought to be voter restrictions. Remember, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent; between 2002 and 2007, the Justice Department failed to prosecute a single person for impersonating another voter. But rather than confront the reality of voter security, proponents of voter ID push faulty analogies; we check ID for cigarettes and ‘R’-rated movies, why should we leave it at the door when for voting?

The easy (and correct) answer is that voting is a right of citizenship, and restrictions—even if they sound reasonable—do nothing but limit the voices that have input in our democracy. Indeed, as the Washington Post shows, the actual effect of voter ID laws is to make voting rights contingent on race and income. If you’re poor, a minority, or both, it is now harder for you to vote than if you were better off and white.

Americans love to call theirs the greatest democracy in the world, but as long as we actively work to disenfranchise our fellow citizens, there’s no way that we have a claim on “great,” much less good.

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