The most recent episode of the Prospect podcast is a conversation with my colleague Abby Rapoport on voter-identification laws.
One thing that we begin to talk about, but don’t spend enough time on, is the normative argument against voter identification. So far, liberals have devoted their time to showing the rarity of in-person voter fraud—the kind ostensibly prevented by voter ID—and the low likelihood that it would affect the outcome of an election. Tactically, this makes a lot of sense. The push for voter ID includes stories of massive voter fraud that play on public distrust toward government. If you can counter those stories with facts, you can make people think twice about implementing an additional burden to voting.
Strategically, however, it’s a weak approach. Conservatives benefit from the the fact that their position sounds reasonable—if identification is required to buy beer and drive cars, then why isn’t it required for elections? Everyone agrees that voting is one of the most important things you can do as an ordinary citizen, and the conservative argument is that we should make it more secure from fraud.
As far as I can tell, liberals don’t have an effective response to this. Debunking the myth of voter fraud doesn't address the normative point that we ought to protect the integrity of the vote, regardless of whether fraud is likely. At best, liberals offer information that challenges the notion of widespread voter fraud. But that’s not enough. You can draw a comparison with the debate over torture. Conservatives insisted that torture was sometimes necessary to extract valuable information, and liberals responded by questioning the premise that it's effective in the first place. But there’s a weakness in that line of reasoning: If the other side could prove that torture was effective, then you’d have to drop your complaints. Likewise, if conservatives could prove that voter fraud was real, then the impetus for voter ID becomes even stronger.
Arguments that hinge on efficacy, when the real question is over values, are doomed to fail—it's why public opposition to torture never returned to its pre-George W. Bush highs. Liberals assume that conservatives need to prove an idea for it to find currency, but the opposite is true; simply contesting the issue is enough to shake up public opinion. Conservatives successfully argued that torture was sometimes necessary, and liberals failed to develop a forceful response.
Which is to say that a liberal response on voter ID needs to be immediate, forceful, and able to engage voters on the plane of ideals and principles. Torture isn’t just ineffective; it’s corrosive to the idea of human dignity, which the United States holds dear. Likewise, the problem with voter ID is that it devalues democratic participation in a country where it's paramount.
Simply put, voter-ID laws limit the number of voters who are able to vote. Unless you have loose laws for identification, there will be some people who won’t have the paperwork or resources to prove their identity at the ballot box (registration is no longer adequate). If you see voting as an important act of citizenship, then this is unacceptable; we should be more concerned with maximizing the franchise, not restricting it. Even more so when you consider that many Americans struggled and died to expand and protect voting rights.
Conservatives may still win the fight over voter identification, but this at least offers a competing narrative that liberals could use. For as much as President Obama has been criticized for not using the “bully pulpit,” the greater failure of American liberalism writ large is its refusal to engage on the level of symbolism. Patriotism has been left to the right wing, and the symbols of our civic religion—the Declaration of Independence, the flag and the Constitution—are thoroughly associated with conservatism. It’s why most people will associate “constitutional” with the word “conservative,” and why we accept that judicial “originalism” translates into conservative policy outcomes.
I don’t know why this is the case, though if I had to hazard a guess, I’d call it spillover from the 1970s, when the Democratic Party fractured along racial and cultural lines, and the 1980s, when many liberals took a turn against the militant patriotism that enveloped the country. In addition, the decline of organized labor has robbed many communities of a concrete example of what a more liberal world might look like. Whatever the cause, the result is that liberals lack a comprehensive and competing vision for the country. At best, we have a series of preferred policy outcomes that imply a vision—which, even if you understand the policy, isn’t good enough.
One last thing: Voter-identification laws have a hugely disproportionate effect on minorities, young people, the elderly, and the poor. These are the people most likely to live at the margins of American life, and as such, the least likely to have access to proper identification. They’re also targets for other conservative attacks—on the welfare state, on public education, and on income security for retirees. All of this is evidence that Republicans are preparing for a period of zero-sum politics, where—in a world of slow growth—both sides fight to maintain their share of a shrinking pie. It’s “job creators” versus everyone else.
The conservative message has managed to resonate with a large portion of anxious Americans, which is why liberals need to present a counter-narrative. We know that policymaking doesn’t need to be zero-sum—we have the resources to grow, and the wealth for everyone to benefit from cooperative government. So we should tell that story, which requires us to rediscover the power of patriotism, and deploy America’s civic religion for our own purposes. There’s no guarantee that we’ll win, but at least we’ll be in the right fight.