“The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.” – Christopher Hitchens
For being a nation that essentially founded the modern democratic republic, we’ve never been too fond of the whole “democratic” part of the equation. As in every election since the dawn of US politics, there are intense, coordinated and blatant attempts currently being made to suppress the right of suffrage for certain sections of society. Of course, anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with American history will know that those less desirable elements consist primarily of urban, minority and impoverished populations who, amazingly, all lean to the left. Our founding fathers set the tone of political debauchery wonderfully from the signing of the constitution when they not only restricted voting rights to propertied white males, but decided that slaves should be counted as part of state populations as 3/5 of a person each to give the Southern States more delegates in the House of Representatives. As former Chicago Cubs Mark Grace once said, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” and it looks like Republican lawmakers are trying pretty damn hard this go around.
The principle cry from conservative supporters of the Voter ID laws that are spreading across the country like herpes in a whorehouse is that voter fraud is an immense problem that is destroying the democratic process in this country. And they could not be more correct, if by “immense” you mean “non-existent.” A study done by the Justice Department found that between the years of 2002 and 2007 there were zero cases of prosecutable voter fraud among 300 million votes cast. They did find 86 instances of voter fraud, which represented a staggering .000000286% of all ballots and were predominantly the result of immigrants or ex-felons not realizing they were unable to vote1. Clearly this is an issue that demands millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours thrown at it to make sure a group of people smaller than an NFL roster at the start of training camp don’t punch democracy in the kidneys.
God forbid if these electoral crusaders had been around back in the day when people actually put a little effort into their fraudulent behavior. In the second half of the 1800s, when Tammany Hall still had all of New York City in the clutch of it’s meaty paw, vote manipulation was elevated to an art form. Come election day, a candidate and his band of not-so-merry men would storm through the tenement halls and bars of the impoverished wards in the city and force people to vote multiple times using pre-marked ballots which were given to them before entry. Go through once, come out, maybe change some clothes or move to another precinct, and vote again unless you wanted your face smashed in. Back in those days they used the threat of real physical force along with the power of the almighty dollar to bend people to their political will. These sons of bitches were so good that between 1868 and 1871, the total number of votes cast in New York were 8% more than the actual population of the city2. That, my friend, is honest to god voter fraud.
In the century or so since Tammany’s fall, the primary method of voter fraud has flipped. At some point, partisan hacks realized that it was easier to keep undesirable voters out than it was to bring falsified voters in. Of, course, exclusionary voting procedures also have a long and illustrious history in American politics. Whether it was through literacy tests, gender discrimination, “pauper exclusion laws” or good-ole-fashioned racism, mainstream political parties have found ways to keep the riff-raff out of the voting booth for centuries. However, in a world where the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has become the lay of the land, politicians have to be craftier if they wanted to keep undesirables at home on election day. Thus, we have the fraudulent promulgation of myths about voter fraud being used to justify restrictive practices like Voter ID laws. It’s voter fraud-fraud or meta-voter fraud, if you like. It reminds me of a saying I’ve heard used in 12-step groups from time to time: “An alcoholic will steal your wallet and lie to you. A drug addict will steal your wallet and then help you look for it.” A politician, it turns out, will steal your wallet and then give a press conference about why you never deserved the right to a wallet in the first place.
As has become customary around this time each election, my home state of Ohio has been front-and-center in this most recent round of voter suppression. My introduction to national politics came eight years ago as I worked the polls for the Kerry/Edwards campaign in a driving sideways rain and watched as thousands of voters queued up for hours outside of voting precincts only to be turned away. It was the same scene all across the state from Cincinnati to Cleveland and Columbus to Toledo. Bush ended up carrying the state by a meager 120,000 votes and laws were later passed to allow increased voting hours in the weeks leading up to the election to make sure such a disastrous logjam never happened again.
Enter current Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who actually tried to set up state voting laws so that rural counties who typically vote Republican had extended voting hours, while urban counties that skew to the left would be denied extra time. After the public learned about his plans and had an appropriate conniption fit over the ridiculous injustices being proposed, Husted was forced to limit early voting hours for everyone in the state or face the possibility that black people might actually exercise their democratic rights and vote. And, lest you think I’m inappropriately bringing the race card into play, there’s this: Even if you look past the fact that urban counties that were originally denied extra voting hours like those around Cincinnati & Cleveland consist of a roughly 50% black constituency while rural, 95% white, counties like Butler & Warren Counties were granted more time, there are always the words of the politicians themselves. Franklin County GOP Chair Doug Preisse, who represents the city of Columbus, said last weekend that he, “actually [felt] we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”3
So, what do the voting hours look like for folks in the Buckeye State now that the state has taken a hacksaw to them? Well, from October 2nd to October 19th, early voting hours have been kept from 8 am to 5 pm when, you know, people are busy shirking their democratic responsibilities by “working.” This is followed up by an extension to 7 pm from October 22nd to November 2nd and an all out ban on voting for the 3 days preceding the election. According to Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates, a non-partisan voter education and protection group, there were an estimated 197,000 early in-person votes cast in 2008 during hours which have since been eliminated by Secretary of State Husted. In just the three days prior to the election where polling places have been inexplicably shut down, 93,000 votes were cast four years ago4. In case you forgot from reading it two paragraphs ago, Kerry lost Ohio, and by extension the election, in 2004 by 120,000 votes, less than 2/3 of the votes cast in now-eliminated early voting hours last election. As a matter of fact, the only time in the past 25 years when a candidate has won the state by a really comfortable margin was when Bush the Elder wiped the floor with the talking hairpiece that was Micheal Dukakis. These decisions, in Ohio and in other Republican-controlled swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida, have legitimate potential to decide who’s being sworn in come January.
There is no other side to this story. It is a coordinated, cynical and immoral attempt by one party to keep the other party’s voters from casting their ballots. In 2008 there was one alleged case of in-person voter fraud in Ohio, which is still pending5. New voter suppression initiatives could keep 200,000 Ohioans from voting. A part of me misses the good old days when politicians had the common decency to try and coerce the general public into committing voter fraud with billy clubs and loaves of bread. Today, these leeches don’t have the courtesy to even come up for a compelling story or bribe to justify their dismantling of the democratic process. If I’m going to get screwed, I’d at least like them to take me out for dinner first.