There are some political and partisan controversies in which I just cannot comprehend, from an ethical perspective, why there is any serious disagreement. Illegal immigration is one of them. Of course we need to control immigration; of course it is madness to encourage illegal immigrants to enter the country; and of course we have to enforce our laws. The arguments against these obvious and undeniable facts are entirely based on rationalizations, emotion, cynical political strategies and group loyalties. The advocates for illegal immigrants have one valid argument that only applies to those who currently live here: it’s too late and too difficult to get rid of them now. I agree, but that doesn’t mean it is responsible to keep adding to the problem.
Voter identification requirements is another one of those debates. Of course it makes sense to protect the integrity of elections by requiring valid IDs. The last time the Supreme Court visited the issue, an ideologically-mixed court found a voter ID requirement reasonable, necessary and constitutional. Writing for the 6-3 majority in 2008, Justice Stevens (who in retirement has become something of a progressive icon), wrote,
“The relevant burdens here are those imposed on eligible voters who lack photo identification cards that comply with [the Indiana law.] Because Indiana’s cards are free, the inconvenience of going to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, gathering required documents, and posing for a photograph does not qualify as a substantial burden on most voters’ right to vote, or represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting. The severity of the somewhat heavier burden that may be placed on a limited number of persons—e.g., elderly persons born out-of-state, who may have difficulty obtaining a birth certificate—is mitigated by the fact that eligible voters without photo identification may cast provisional ballots that will be counted if they execute the required affidavit at the circuit court clerk’s office. Even assuming that the burden may not be justified as to a few voters, that conclusion is by no means sufficient to establish petitioners’ right to the relief they seek.”
Of course. Our government is entirely dependent on elections. Nobody questions the reasonableness of requiring IDs to buy liquor, open a bank account, rent a car or check into a hotel, yet we’re going to rely on the honor system for our elections? The idea is madness, though, to be fair, two current members of the Court, Justice Ginsberg and Breyer, argued that avoiding “disparate impact” justified allowing a gaping vulnerability in the integrity of elections to go unaddressed. Breyer wrote:
“Indiana’s statute requires registered voters to present photo identification at the polls. It imposes a burden upon some voters, but it does so in order to prevent fraud, to build confidence in the voting system, and thereby to maintain the integrity of the voting process. In determining whether this statute violates the Federal Constitution, I would balance the voting-related interests that the statute affects, asking “whether the statute burdens any one such interest in a manner out of proportion to the statute’s salutary effects upon the others (perhaps, but not necessarily, because of the existence of a clearly superior, less restrictive alternative)…”
Justice Breyer concluded that the alleged “burden” to some groups outweighed the integrity of the democratic system, thus embodying the current delusion of modern liberalism: race is more important that anything else, especially when that race is a reliable and uncritical source of power for Democrats.
It wasn’t until several political and judicial factors changed that the Ginsberg-Breyer rationale became politically weaponized, among them the increasing employment of the dubious “disparate impact” doctrine, the Democratic party strategists’ realization that painting Republicans as racists was an excellent way to get minorities to the polls; the growing tendency of African Americans to automatically vote a straight Democratic ticket regardless of who the candidates were and what they had accomplished; an aggressively political and partisan Justice Department and, yes, the realization that all those illegal immigrants here who are counting on keeping the borders as porous as possible might somehow find ways to vote, that requiring IDs became controversial.
Do some, even many, Republican legislators and conservative pundits promote state voter ID laws because they believe there would be a disparate impact on Democratic voting blocs? Absolutely; I have no doubts whatsoever. Does responsible and necessary legislation become magically irresponsible and unconstitutional because unethical motives merge with the ethical ones in passing it? Again, of course not. It is a principle of ethical analysis discussed here many times: many actions have both ethical and unethical motives, but the ethical nature of the conduct must be judged on its intended purpose, reasonably anticipated results, and effect on society as a whole. In the case of voter identification, the obvious and reasonable approach is to pass legislation to protect the integrity of the system and then seek to mitigate any inequities by separate means. In an ethical, reasonable system where one party didn’t see itself gaining power by allowing loose enforcement of voting requirements and the other party didn’t similarly see happy side-effect of enforcing them vigorously, this wouldn’t be a partisan issue at all. Of course we should have laws making sure that voters are who they say they are. Of course we should make sure that every citizen has access to such identification.
The current ascendant argument against voter ID laws is articulated by the New York Times in an editorial today titled, The Success of the Voter Fraud Myth. Continue reading →