Voting Is A Right, Not A Test

Every time we write about voting rights and giant purges of voter rolls in states like Georgia, and Ohio, and Wisconsin, we always get lots of responses along the lines of:

Isn’t some simple pre-test of citizens’ ‘consciousness’ a means of improving democracy, rather than a means of undermining it?”

*actual quote

But that’s not the way it works. Voting is not a test of how good a citizen you are, it’s a right every American of age has, or should have. In fact, you can’t be penalized for not voting. That’s the law. The Constitution guarantees the right to vote, but also does not make it mandatory.

It’s also the law for voter rolls to be updated. And of course they need to be updated because people die, and move. Yet many a County Clerk’s office or Board of Elections is notoriously inefficient at getting things up-to-date. That’s at least partly because in this day-and-age, people who die or move don’t tend to vote, especially with new photo ID requirements in many states where you have to prove you are who you say you are when you show up at the polls. Republicans in Kentucky have just introduced new voter photo ID legislation which if passed would go into effect by this November, just in time for both the Presidential race, and the re-election bid of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

So, if you’re an underfunded state government agency and are faced with implementing all kinds of new rules and combating all kinds of new cyber-challenges (including protecting voting machines from hacking, etc.), it’s somewhat understandable that updating rolls might not always be at the top of your list.

We recently found this excellent article in the Guardian. It too agrees that rolls must be updated. But it argues, basically, that you can do that updating carefully, or sloppy. And a lot of efforts—especially those led by Republicans—are being done deliberately sloppy. Which means many people—by design—wind up getting removed who shouldn’t be. According to the Brennan Center, almost 17-million Americans since the 2016 Presidential election, which is an historically huge number.

The “do it sloppy” folks have been getting big assists from the Supreme Court. First, when it chose to neuter the Voting Rights Act, saying large parts of it were no longer necessary. Since then, the Brennan Center’s found the number of voters getting tossed is much higher in places that had previously been more protected by that Act.

And in a case we’ve written about before, but has still received surprisingly little attention, the Supreme Court ruled that a voter in Ohio who almost never voted but all of a sudden wanted to because there was a marijuana legalization question on the ballot, had been properly removed because he’d failed to return a post card sent to him by the government verifying his registration information. He’d claimed he was being punished for failing to vote, which is against the law.

But that’s not the way the Supreme Court saw it. As Justice Alito wrote in the majority opinion:

“Ohio removes the registrants at issue on a permissible ground: change of residence”.

And thereby enshrined into law an incredibly ludicrous assumption: that if if somebody gets something in the mail from the government and does not respond to it, it means they’ve moved. Why is that distinction so important? Because you can’t take someone’s right to vote away because they fail or choose not to vote. As we’ve said before, that’s prohibited by law.

Problem with the Court’s “solution”: post card return rates of this type are only about 20%, according to the U.S. Government’s own numbers. So it’s not a very effective way of measuring what you’re ostensibly setting out to measure, because pretty much for certain 80% of the people you sent post cards to didn’t move (or die). So it’s really only an effective way of removing an excessive number of people from voter rolls, especially those who very likely would be voting for your opponents, a.k.a. doing it sloppy.

As Justice Breyer pointed out in his dissent in that Ohio case, not replying to a letter could easily reflect:

“The human tendency not to send back cards received in the mail”.

Which is of course right. And is also of course precisely what those most interested in vote suppression (Republicans) are counting on.

But why wouldn’t a person just be a good citizen and return the card? And why would this be the case in droves? We can think of a bunch of answers, so here are a couple:

  1. People are very skeptical of “official mailings” from the government. For instance, we got a very proper looking letter yesterday that said “official state business” on it, but it was really from a printing company that was trying to sell us posters that the state requires to be put up in workplaces. So while technically that’s “official state business”, it wasn’t from the state at all. Next time, we might throw that kind of thing out without opening it. Plus we’ve all been contacted by now (we think) by the “FBI” or “IRS”, except it wasn’t the FBI or IRS at all, but fraudsters trying to extract personal information for nefarious use. So we’re conditioned to think anything that’s unsolicited is some kind of fraud, probably.
  2. People don’t always trust the government to be fully open about why they’re being asked to provide the state with information about themselves. That’s especially true if they’re relying on the state for some kind of assistance.
  3. People think they probably won’t want to vote, but then a candidate or issue comes along that captures their attention and changed their mind. (As happened in the Ohio case we just discussed). They should be able to change their mind. And it should be super-easy for them to do that, not super-hard.

Yes, if you go and vote in every election, you should not have any of these problems. If you live in one place and don’t move around, you should not have any of these problems. Although you could still get “stung” by sloppy voter ID requirements. (Which is why it’s handy to check what you’ll need at, a bipartisan organization we have no official affiliation with, but we like).

A lot of voter purge efforts target young people, poor people, and people who live in cities because they tend to vote Democrat and tend to move a lot. And the people who want to do it sloppy know sloppy works. For instance, according to Reuters, in major Ohio cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus:

“Voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods“.

And like we said, voting is not a contest to prove you’re a better citizen than someone else. It’s a right that should not be removed by sloppy work, especially not by deliberately sloppy work.