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Hillary Needs a Faux War on Voting Rights

by Jonathan S. Tobin     •     Commentary Voter ID Fraud

Hillary Clinton was in Texas on Thursday doing what she usually does: not taking questions from the press while seeking ways to energize the Democratic base. In this case, her focus on highlighting a key issue for Democrats: voting rights. But contrary to the overheated rhetoric she and other members of her party are employing, this has little to do with fighting actual efforts to stop minorities from voting and everything to do with creating a sense of crisis, particularly among African-Americans, that Republicans are seeking to put them “back in chains.” The main focus of this effort is to invalidate laws requiring voters to have photo IDs while seeking to institute weeks-long periods of early voting. Neither of those measures has much to do with ensuring that Jim Crow never returns. To the contrary, the effort to hype this into a fight for racial equality is about Clinton’s fear that the African-Americans that turned out in record numbers to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama won’t show up for her next year. And if takes a cynical waving of the bloody shirt of the Civil Rights era to convince them that Republicans are out to get them, Clinton is demonstrating that she will stoop as low as it takes to get blacks sufficiently alarmed about a possible GOP victory in 2016.

As the New York Times points out, the Democrats tactic is to target every state that has passed a voter ID law or that seeks to pull back on early voting and to tie them up with litigation so as to ensure that nothing impedes their efforts to turn out their base. But the legal controversies about voter ID or early voting are actually second to the political purpose of this issue.

Voter ID opponents are fond of arguing that there are few cases in which mass voter fraud has been proven. That’s true, but that talking point is undermined by the realization that, in states and cities where parties control law enforcement and election commissions, even the most suspicious voting patterns are not investigated. Of course, assuming that there is no such thing as voter fraud forces us to forget everything we know about American political history as well as human nature. But even if we accept the premise that efforts to prevent fraud are more about possible rather than actual threats to the integrity of the vote, the same argument can be turned around on liberal opponents of such efforts.

Whatever one might think about voter integrity laws — and the vast majority of Americans have always believed they are both reasonable and legal — the notion that they are a threat to voting rights is a lie made out of whole cloth. In a nation where photo IDs are required for virtually any business transaction, travel, or interaction with the government, it stands to reason that voters ought to be able to meet the same minimal requirement of self-identification. The analogy made between discriminatory Jim Crow laws and voter ID are bogus because the former was about obtaining a fraudulent outcome while the latter is about ensuring the opposite result.

It is true that statistics can be found to show that fewer minorities have photo IDs than other groups but, as liberal blogger and election guru Nate Silver pointed out in 2012, there is no reason to believe the vast majority of those who fail to make the effort to obtain such a document from the state are also willing to inconvenience themselves to register or vote. The same year a Washington Post poll found that nearly two-thirds of African-Americans questioned supported voter ID laws while three-quarters of all Americans agreed. There is no proof that anyone who really wants to vote is being turned away or stopped from doing so. Instead of trying to prevent states from ensuring the integrity of the vote, or damning a system of voting in which the body politic would decide the outcome in a common time frame that would encompass the entire campaign rather than merely a portion of it, Democrats should be concentrating their efforts on getting more people registered and out to vote.

Minorities are no more incapable of getting a photo ID or showing up on Election Day (or a shortened period of voting) than anyone else. None of the measures Clinton and other Democrats are protesting bears the slightest resemblance to segregationist tactics. Both parties are always seeking to game the system, and Clinton’s proposal for automatic national registration, a scheme that sounds better in principle than it might be in practice, should be understood in that context. Seen in that light, the idea that this issue is a civil rights crisis or a threat to voting rights is a farce.

Why then are Democrats hyping a non-existent crisis? The same reason they sought to create the impression that Republicans were waging a non-existent “war on women” in 2012 and 2014. Creating the impression that African-Americans are being targeted by Republicans is the only way she can be sure that this most Democratic of demographic groups will turn out in the numbers she needs to win next year, even though Obama will no longer be on the ballot. If doing so means cloaking herself in the mantle of Rosa Parks and making wild, unsubstantiated claims about blacks being deprived of the right to vote, then so be it. But whether or not this faux “war on voting” works, and it might, let no one misunderstand her purpose. This is about politics and manipulating the fears of African-Americans, not a genuine threat to their rights or those of any other voting group.