Voting, Thomas Paine once said, “is the beating heart of democracy.” It’s what makes our democracy possible. Without it, Paine said, “man would be reduced to slavery.”
It’s for this very reason, of course, that conservatives have worked since the founding of our republic to make it harder or downright impossible for people who are not part of the political and economic elite to vote.
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This conservative war on voting has taken on a number of different forms, Jim Crow being just the most obvious example, but it has always been based on one simple idea: conservatives lose elections when more people vote, and win elections when fewer people vote.
As American Legislative Exchange Council founder and Reagan advisor Paul Weyrich put it back in 1980, “our leverage in the elections… goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This has been the thinking behind every conservative voter suppression effort in history.
But conservatives are smart.
They’ve always been careful to disguise their war against voting in language that makes it sound acceptable, at least to the minimally informed.
But every once in a while the mask slips, and conservatives tell the truth about their voter suppression accomplishments.
Well, the mask slipped last night in Wisconsin.
During an interview with a local TV station, Republican Wisconsin Congressman Glenn Grothman admitted the truth about his state’s new voter ID law.
Like all voter suppression laws, Wisconsin’s voter ID law is supposedly about stopping “voting fraud.”
But that’s not what Congressman Grothman said it’s about.
He said it was about making sure Republicans win the Badger State in November.
This actually isn’t the first time a Republican has let the mask slip about voter suppression laws.
Back in 2012, Mike Turzai, the Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said that his state’s new voter ID law would “allow Mitt Romney to win.”
The really revealing thing about that clip and the clip of what Congressman Grothman said last night is the fact that neither the Congressman nor Representative Turzai even bothered to mention voter fraud as the so-called reason for passing voter ID laws.
They just went straight ahead and said that voter suppression laws are about winning elections.
The reason they did this, of course, is that voter fraud is just a canard.
It’s a lie made up by Republicans to justify their unconstitutional and undemocratic war on democracy.
In fact, a recent study out of Loyola University found just 31 credible cases of voter fraud out of more than a billion ballots cast in the decade-and-a-half between 2000 and 2014.
You’re more than 100 times more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to see voter fraud in the wild.
And here’s the thing — while voter fraud itself is for all intents and purposes a myth, the effects of voter suppression are quite real.
A new study out of the University of California at San Diego, for example, found that the turnout gap between Republicans and Democrats in states with voter ID suppression laws jumped from 2.3 to 5.6 percentage points after those voter ID laws went into effect.
There is no debate.
Voter ID suppression laws are about one thing and one thing alone: keeping Democrats away from the polls so Republicans can win. And, in that regard, they work.
Even Republicans will admit that when you catch them on the right day.
And, ironically, the reason Republicans can get away with this is because of slavery. The framers of the US Constitution didn’t put a right to vote into the US Constitution because they were afraid that right might be claimed by slaves, and they didn’t want to get into that sticky wicket.
So how can we protect our democracy from this kind of flagrant and partisan voter suppression?
Well, for one, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to full strength.
Ever since the right-wingers on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act back in 2013, Republicans in the old Confederacy have had free reign to suppress the vote of millions of their own citizens.
That needs to stop, and Congress should get its act together right now and fix the Voting Rights Act.
But we need to go farther than that.
Today’s war on voting isn’t just based in the South; it’s national.
That’s why it’s time to enshrine an affirmative right to vote in the US Constitution, right along with the right to free speech, the right to due process and the right to equal protection under the law.
The beating heart of democracy is in grave danger. Let’s keep it safe from those who would wish to destroy it.
Let’s make voting a constitutional right.