The Best Way to Stop “Voter ID” Laws? Stop Helping Them With Your Words

Have you ever discussed the rash of new laws requiring prospective voters to provide valid state issued identification before voting? Did you refer to these laws as “Voter ID laws?” If so, take out a jar, take out a dollar, bash your head into a table and then put the dollar in the jar. This is your new “Voter ID law” swear jar and you will use it every time you use the term “Voter ID.”

This is the jar size the mainstream media needs (via Sacred Sandwich)

As a general rule, why would you ever accept the title for a law to describe the law to others? Titles are specifically chosen by the authors of those laws to cast legislation in the most positive light. When you talk about “Voter ID” laws, you reinforce the idea that these laws simply ask voters to provide ID to prove that they are who they claim. Most people use government-issued ID every day, to drive to work, board a flight, or get blitzed at the bar down the street. Calling for identification sounds like an incredibly low bar to set for voters, even if in reality this requirement disenfranchises many minority and elderly voters.

Some Democratic party officials have recognized the need for a better title to hang on these laws. For example, Representative John Lewis, a civil rights legend, has taken to labeling these laws “voter suppression laws.” The title does expose the real effect of these laws on basic civil rights, but taking such a strong stance with a title carries risks as well. Given that the “Voter ID” title is so engrained in the minds of Americans, any attempt to recast the title will be viewed with skepticism. When the Democratic party invokes the “voter suppression” title it comes across as a case of sour grapes. There is a ring of hyperbole in comparing the overt acts of violence and intimidation employed in the past or in functional dictatorships with a law asking voters to show an ID. It just doesn’t feel like “suppression” to the average American and this turns off those Americans in the middle on what should be important civil rights issue.

To change the narrative, there needs to be an alternative title that doesn’t hit the ear as an overreach, but still conveys something that offends the average American. Personally, I suggest using the phrase, “voter screening laws.” It doesn’t suggest that the recent spate of laws rise to the level of past suppression efforts in place before the civil rights movement, but it ups the ante from “showing an ID” to “being judged based on your ID.” Another advantage of the term “screening” is that it ties these laws to TSA airport screening, the most common instance of “screening” in American life. Whether or not the TSA is perfect, the fact remains that a national tragedy was caused in part by lax airport security and 10 years later Americans hate airport security. Boiled down to its essence, Americans prefer terrorism to a screening that might force them to take off their shoes.

Finally, I suggest peppering the rhetoric about this issue with the word “bureaucracy.” Combining “screening” with “bureaucracy” invokes the image of a petty bureaucrat standing between voters and their fundamental civil rights. I call this the “Patty and Selma” effect after Homer Simpson’s loathsome sisters-in-law who work at the Springfield DMV. If you want average Americans to join the fight against these laws, try to connect the voting experience to waiting at the DMV and see how quickly Americans turn on Voter ID laws.

Imagine this woman deciding whether or not you get to vote

Damn. I just had to put another dollar in my jar.

5 comments for “The Best Way to Stop “Voter ID” Laws? Stop Helping Them With Your Words

  1. Jake-314451
    June 12, 2012 at 5:21 am

    “As a general rule, why would you ever accept the title for a law to describe the law to others?”

    If that title accurately described what the law requires I would accept it and use it. So a law that says voters must show ID, else they must cast a provisional ballot, yeah Voter ID seems pretty accurate.

    “When you talk about “Voter ID” laws, you reinforce the idea that these laws simply ask voters to provide ID to prove that they are who they claim.”

    Which is exactly what the laws do. In fact I don’t think you could more accurately describe what the laws do in those states which have even made sure those ID’s are free.

    “There is a ring of hyperbole in comparing the overt acts of violence and intimidation employed in the past or in functional dictatorships with a law asking voters to show an ID.”

    Yeah, that isn’t the ring of it, it is hyperbole.

    “Personally, I suggest using the phrase, “voter screening laws.”

    Highly inaccurate. Such a vague phrase also identifies the process of a poll worker checking the rolls to see if a given person is listed as being there. So as a general rule I’d have to reject it, since it doesn’t actually tell you anything about the law and is instead designed specifically to simply get an emotional investment either into or against a law.

    I’d reject it because it is rather than making the debate be about a free exchange of ideas weighing the relative merits of various positions it is about who can play on emotion and fear more.

    • June 12, 2012 at 7:53 am

      Ah. Remember when conservatives were against the slightest whiff of imposing ID requirements on Americans? It seems like only yesterday. []

      Until it became convenient to lie about the incidence of voter fraud in an effort to make voting more difficult and introduce more judgment into the process to better marginalize or exclude voters. []

      Suggesting that “getting an ID” is the only hurdle imposed by these laws is naive. “ID” is meaningless apart from “screening.” Recall every instance in society where an ID is called for and think about what happens next. The police run your driver’s license through their database, the airport scans your passport, the bar scrutinizes your age. “ID” always begets some level of screening. Perhaps we should take the drinking metaphor further and instead call these laws “getting carded by poll workers,” though “screening” seems to cover the bases well enough.

      The risk that the screening process will yield false exclusions from voting is high. Even if we ignored the high risk of some poll workers hiding behind, “I just don’t trust that this is you,” to deny someone voting rights, there are innocent mistakes and confusion. There are bureaucratic issues such as not having updated your license between moves that could and should under a strict reading of the law force poll workers to turn away voters. Campaign observers already unduly lean on poll workers to challenge voters and giving poll workers more latitude only increases the power of partisan observers to try to artificially influence an election.

      As for your complaint that “screening” is inaccurate, if anything the opposite is true — you’re really saying that perhaps “screening” is too accurate because it also identifies the status quo name check of poll workers. In this way it’s true, something of a screening function takes place now, though in the form of checking voter registration as opposed to outside identification. One could also more accurately identify the status quo as already requiring Voter ID to the extent that it is an “ID for the sake of ID” system requiring citizens to apply for voter registration and then successfully blindly identify that their name matches a name and address already listed in the rolls without additional judgment from the poll worker.

      Voting carries two risks: (1) the risk of fraud, which incrementally dilutes the value of the votes of all eligible voters and (2) the risk of disenfranchisement, which fundamentally robs an individual of a fundamental right. These must be balanced and, under pre-existing law, placed the burden on the government to prove fraud and mitigated its risk by requiring questionable cases to fill out provisional ballots that are only counted (and perhaps contested) if the election is close enough. This new round of screening places the burden on the individual to provide heightened proof and either denies the right to vote entirely or heightens the presumption of a successful challenge to a provisional ballot. The former method is a much better balance given the complete lack of systemic voter fraud in America and the risks of a fundamental denial of a basic civic right.

      The math is fairly simple: when there is no proven incidence of voter fraud (or even if there were, something more than very marginal incidence), any risk that a policy would chill voting is unacceptable.

      Finally, your desire for a politics devoid “emotional” language is laudable, but the problem is that the “Voter ID” title is already an emotional appeal. Trying to neuter a law is as onerous as trying to trump up the effects of a law. The “Voter ID” title intentionally obscures the new, heightened role of the poll worker to make snap decisions about the accuracy of an ID as well as the arbitrary and slanted nature of these laws in establishing “acceptable ID” (e.g. the Texas law that allowed gun licenses of typically more conservative voters to constitute valid government-issued ID, but not University of Texas student IDs which statistically would favor more liberal voters). It is a naked effort to lull the populace into believing that the only additional check on voting is a short trip to the DMV.

      Wait a minute…how can anyone argue that just getting an ID is a simple task when it involves the DMV?

    • June 12, 2012 at 8:05 am

      And I will add that it doesn’t take much investigation to learn that the voter suppression effect of these laws is NOT hyperbole (though it sounds like it to the ear of the average American). Studies show that minority voting in states with these laws has gone down even as the minority population and even minority voter registration in those states has increased — for instance in Georgia. []

      But the best test will be November when we will be able to compare minority turnout in even more states against the prior election and adjust for population growth. If we continue to see the decline in minority turnout adjusted for population growth then I will reconsider whether progressives should revisit using the term “voter suppression” by itself.

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