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National Issues

Voters and the Question of their “Confidence in the System” PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bob Bauer   
June 10, 2008
This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

The "public confidence" that is popularly invoked to justify restrictions on political activity, such as voter ID, lets legislators off far too easily.  This should be clear with little more said on the subject:  why would legislators be given license to restrict substantive rights in the name of relieving a heavily advertised fear in the body politic, such as the fear of corruption or voter fraud, that legislators might have self-interested reason to promote and exploit?  And is it not reasonably suspected that a record built on representations about public fears and anxieties rests on this material for want of the real thing—data?

What should have been clear before is now luminously plain, in the light of the first-rate research done by Stephen Ansolabehere and Nate Persily on public fears of "voter fraud."  Ansolabehere and Persily examined the data from three election cycles and carefully show a) that voter perceptions of impersonation do not correlate with the choice to vote or not to vote; and b) voter confidence in the integrity of the electoral process does not vary with the strictness of the ID regime in effect.

"This lack of empirical support," the authors conclude, "leads us to conclude that, at least in the context of current election practices and procedures, public perceptions do not provide a firm justification for voter identification laws."  In one of their notes, they cite to another observations, about the dangers in relying on perception, drawn from the Missouri Supreme Court’s review of a state voter ID law: "’the tactic of shaping public misperception could be used in the future as a mechanism for further burdening the right to vote or other fundamental rights’"  Ansolabehere and Persily, 1759 at n. 51, citing Weinschenk v. State, 203 S.W.3d 201 (Mo. 2007).

One of the most useful observations offered by the authors here is on the very confusion at the heart of the implication—and it is only that, an implication—that those who suspect or claim to suspect fraud may not, in reaction, vote.  "[I]t is not obvious as a theoretical matter," they write, "why a person who perceives a lot of fraud would not vote."  Id. at 1752.  They may vote with the expectation that their vote would still matter; they may cast their vote to fight fraud, believing that the right-minded should turn out in even greater force to overwhelm the fraudulent designs of impersonators and other felons at the polls.

The uncertain nature of motivation here, on the part of those alleging a concern with fraud, is underscored by the different descriptions of the nature of the concern.  Is it a "fear," a "belief," a "concern," or a "perception"?  In two pages, Ansolabehere and Persily variously refer to both a "fear" and a "perception,"  id. 1739-1740, and the differences between these two descriptions of what voters are experiencing—and the difference between these and a "belief"—are additional cause for care in projecting voting behavior or civic commitment.

A voter who actively "fears" fraud may stay away from the polls, washing her hands of the whole ugly business or concluding that honest votes will be swamped by dishonest ones.  But a voter who perceives that there may be fraud, or believes in it existence, does not relate it necessarily, or even logically, to her vote now, in this election about which she most cares.  Assuming that there may well be fraud, she, the voter, does not have to further assume that it is decisive or widespread.  For her, there is still enough confidence in the process, faith in the vote she is casting, that she can hold the one belief or perception and proceed as it is of only slim importance to her own decision to vote.

Ansolabehere and Persily remind the reader in another footnote that after the tumult of 2000, with all the dire warnings about the last damage to American democracy, Americans turned out again in 2004, undeterred by the resentments and suspicions still lingering from the previous election.  This election, their vote in that election for that office, commanded their attention and compelled their participation.  And the Supreme Court retained its hold, certainly relative to other institutions and governmental branches, on the esteem of the Justices' fellow citizens.

The intellectual failings of the "confidence" case for voter ID is not just a mark of shabby thought or argument.  They are a sure sign that the explanation for the movement lies elsewhere, in its politics.  This is what voters should most fear, what should most shake their confidence.
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