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How Not to Defend Voter Restriction Laws

By Andrew Cullison
31 Oct 2014
B&W Line , whoohoo120 (CC BY 2.0)


I was listening to this NPR story today that presented two rebuttals to the claim that voter restriction laws make it difficult for historically disenfranchised people to vote. They both strike me as bad rebuttals, and I’d like to consider them in turn. (You can listen to the story above).

The first is that it claimed that activists against voter restriction may be hindering their own cause by helping people vote. Pam Fessler claimed that as activists succeed in getting people what they need to vote, they provide evidence that these laws are not that harmful – that they don’t stop qualified voters from voting. That’s such an odd position to take. In any case where someone succeeds in helping someone overcome an obstacle, it’s not evidence that there was no obstacle. Suppose we removed all accessibility ramps from all of the town courthouses. Suppose outraged activists stood by some of the courthouses and helped lift people in wheelchairs up the steps. It would be silly to say that these activists have provided evidence that removal of the ramps is not harmful. It’s still true that a vast majority of people without the assistance of someone would not access the courthouse, and that they would have to do more than your average person to access the courthouse. The same seems true of voter restriction laws; many people must jump through burdensome hoops

Second, it is argued that because black voters in Georgia out voted white voters (by percentage) in the last general election, the voter restriction laws do not harm black voters. This does nothing, what-so-ever, to show that voter ID laws haven’t made it more difficult for black voters. The relevant statistic would be whether the percentage of black voters has decreased in recent years, and there is actually some evidence to suggest that it has. Approximate 1,329,000 black people voted in the 2008 general election. Approximately 1,280,000 voted in the 2012 general election. That’s a decrease in black voters. If the population of black voters remained constant or increased (which is likely), it’s a decrease in the percentage of black people voting in the state of Georgia.

You can accept everything I’ve said here, and still be in favor of voter restriction laws. My point is simply that this is not the way to defend voter restriction laws.

Andrew Cullison is the director of the Cincinnati Ethics Center.
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