There’s nothing so democratic as a lynch mob, as concerned citizens of Ohio and Pennsylvania have recently shown.
In Pennsylvania this week, a judge upheld Act 18-2012, the now-famous piece of anti-voter-fraud legislation. Voter fraud has been a huge topic of concern in the past several years, and not entirely without reason. Since the year 2000 there have been 2,068 documented cases of reported voter fraud throughout the United States. In Pennsylvania in 2008, in fact, a temporary employee at ACORN named Luis R. Torres-Serrano was accused of submitting over 100 false voter-registration cards to election officials.* Act 18-2012 can be viewed, therefore, as a shining example of populist outrage forcing the state to right a wrong.
Except that it isn’t.
Although there have been 2,068 reported cases of voter fraud over the past eleven years, Act 12-2012 only targets one specific kind of fraud: in-person voter impersonation. The number of those cases is significantly less. Since 2000 there have been only 10 cases of voter-impersonation charges made – that’s nationally, for all elections. The lawyers for the state, in fact, admitted that not only were they “not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania,” they agreed that even without the law such fraud wasn’t really “likely to occur in November of 2012.” Initially GOP officials estimated that they thought the law would adversely affect about 90,000 voters that did not have the type of ID now required. They have now revised that number to over 758,000 voters, about 9% of the state’s overall adult population.
So if you’re not taking notes at home, that’s 9% of the population no longer able to vote in order to stop a type of fraud that has occurred 10 times throughout the entire country in over a decade, and that its advocates admit probably isn’t happening anyway. If that seems crazy to you, it’s because you’re not thinking like a populist politician.
The law was passed by a GOP legislature because the 9% of voters that the measures potentially stop from being let into the polls are generally either poor, black, hispanic, or elderly – and collectively are overwhelmingly Democratic. And unlike most of these cases where charges of rampant partisanship like this are denied, Pennsylvania House Leader Mike Turzai has admitted that this was why Act 12-2012 was passed. (Mind you, he admitted it giving a speech at a GOP fundraiser when he wasn’t aware he was being recorded, but hey, no one ever said you had to be smart to be honest.)
As bad as these Pennsylvania lawmakers look in this light, however, their Ohio brethren might actually look worse.
Heading into the weekend news dump last week, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted quietly announced that he would be expanding early voting hours to include evenings and weekends so those that worked regular hours would still be able to vote – but he did so for only those counties that are heavily Republican. For Democratic counties, hours were restricted to between 8:00 and 5:00 only. Outcry over this move forced Husted to backpedal this week.
I mention both of these stories because, I believe, they are both the inevitable consequences of populist movements.
Populist movements are fueled by anger, and because of this I remember that the tragic shootings in Arizona were held up by some as the natural consequence of a right wing media machine that looked to delegitimize every branch of government its party did not control. This was unfair of course, and silly as well. The Arizona shootings were the result of a nutter several cards short of a deck – period. That horror had nothing to do with the graphic Sarah Palin’s PAC used on internet ads. But there are consequences to such populist vitriol, and eventually more often than not those consequences are this:
When the good people of a Republic come to believe they are on the precipice of doom facing an enemy most evil, they willingly and enthusiastically resort to shredding the Constitution in the name of preserving it.
Those same populists that are so frightened of the Otherness of the president that they are unabashedly trying to screw their neighbors out of voting are the same people that last December cheered New Gingrich when he promised that, were he elected president, he would arrest judges that did not rule the way he told them to rule.
This is the real danger of a world where journalism is just infotainment propaganda designed to make you believe the other guy and the government/corporation is a boogeyman out to destroy you and your family. This is what FOX and MSNBC and talk radio and panicked email chains beget. This cottage-industry populism allows us to give ourselves permission to do things that we should by all rights be ashamed of doing.
Whenever we’re in a populist snit we always tell ourselves that we’re going to rise up and elect the world’s next Madison, or Jefferson, or Linclon. But we never do. We always elect the next Mike Turzai and Jon Husted.
*Ironically, Torres-Serrano was not charged with voter fraud because he was not really a political operative. He was using false voter registration cards for the more pedestrian crime of credit fraud; he was charged with 9 counts of identity theft.