Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lose your house, lose your vote

In their continuing efforts to make sure that poor people who might vote Democratic don't get to vote at all, the Republicans have come up with a new tool. They are using home foreclosures to reenact a system suspiciously similar to the property requirements that were in force in the early days of the republic.
The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

“We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses,” party chairman James Carabelli told Michigan Messenger in a telephone interview earlier this week.

A little history lesson is in order. One of the minor themes that often appears in American History and Western Civilization classes is that progress is directed toward the achievement of greater democracy and that full participation in the elctoral system is a good thing. Leaving aside philosophical questions of teleology, this isn't a particularly bad interpretation. Admitting that there have been setbacks along the way, the rough thrust of our history has been in the direction of expanding the right to vote (enfranchisement) from a privileged few to all adult citizens.

When the Constitution was ratified, only white male property owners (about 10 to 16 percent of the nation's population) had the vote. Between 1820 and 1840 the property requirement was gradually removed and all white males had the vote. This shift is one of the primary elements of the Jacksonian revolution. In the years before the Civil War, the adoption of literacy tests (aimed at disenfranchising immigrants, especially the Irish) rolled this back. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1870, formally gave all male citizens the vote, though most states fudged the law quite a bit. Jim Crow laws adopted across the South in the years around 1890 managed to disenfranchise most black voters. Women got the vote in 1920 and American Indians in 1924. Beginning in 1957, a series of laws and court decisions outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other laws that were being used to keep southern Blacks from voting. In 1971 the voting age was lowered to 18, formally giving almost all adults the right to vote. During the seventies long residency requirements and other barriers to voter registration were struck down. The few remaining categories of disenfranchised adults at the end of the seventies included convicted felons and the mentally ill.

The seventies were the peak of enfranchisement according to the law. Since then, efforts to disenfranchise whole groups of voters have mostly been informal rather than legal. Some of the dirty tricks used since then have been telling voters to appear on the wrong day, telling voters that they can't vote if they have outstanding tickets or debt, and not providing enough voting equipment or ballots to certain precincts. In recent years, however, there has been a rise in legal efforts at disenfranchisement. Voter roll purges and tough ID laws are the primary tools of this new disenfranchisement.

Voting rights is an area where the psychological and linguistic differences between liberals and conservatives are starkly clear. Virtually all Americans agree that voting is a right and that people should exercise that right. Most of the time when someone says this or that group shouldn't be allowed to vote, they mean it as a tasteless joke or a bitter commentary on some item in the news and not as a serious proposal to change the Constitution. There are exceptions, but they are mostly stupid people who shouldn't be allowed to vote.*

The reason that liberals and conservatives come into conflict over voting rights every election is that while they agree that voting is a right, they don't agree on what the word "right" means. Most liberals think rights are something all people are born with and that they can only be deprived of their rights for the most grevious wrongdoing. Most conservatives think rights are something earned; though we might all be born with a potential to have the same rights, we must first earn the the perrogative to exercise a specific right. Simply put, when a conservative says "right" he means what a liberal means when he says "privilege."

This difference is most visible in discussions of election malfeasance. When conservatives get upset over election problems, they are almost always upset over the idea that someone voted who didn't "deserve" to vote. "Deserve" is one of the most powerful words in the conservative lexicon. They worry that the value of their rights are diminished by undeserving people exercising the same rights. When liberals get upset over election problems, they are almost always upset over the idea that someone was unfairly prevented from voting who was entitled to vote. "Fair" is one of the most powerful words in the liberal lexicon. Being excluded is one of the most unfair things a liberal can imagine. Election reform for conservatives means strict controls to keep the wrong people from voting. Election reform for liberals means making sure no one is prevented from exercising their right to vote.

This brings us back to Macomb County, Michigan. Most conservatives will think James Carabelli's efforts to prevent people from voting who can't prove residency in the precinct are perfectly reasonable. If they don't belong to the precinct, they shouldn't vote there and it's just too bad if they can't vote anywhere else. Most liberals will be outraged that people who have already endured the loss of their homes will now face the added insult of being deprived of the vote. Both sides will think the other side is cheating and not understand why the other side doesn't care about "rights."

* For the sake of the humor-impaired, I should point out that that was an ironic demonstration of the tasteless joke thing I just referred to.

No comments: