Monday, January 14, 2008

Voter ID Law Is Bad for Democracy (Update 3)

I know that I'm beating a dead horse (especially given the cold reception that "my side" received in the Supreme Court), but something in this morning's The Indianapolis Star caught my attention. In a featured "My View" editorial entitled "Voter ID law brings integrity to system" (The Indianapolis Star, January 14, 2008, page A9), Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita defends the Voter ID law and makes some of the same arguments that I discussed in my previous entries on the subject. However, Rokita offers another new argument that I had to address. Rokita cites a poll that found that "75 percent of Hoosiers support requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID" and another poll that found that "81 percent of the country favored the requirement". Several thoughts immediately come to mind.

First, I'm curious to know how these polls were worded. I'm sure that most people do support the broad concept of requiring a photo ID from voters. But, did the poll ask people if their support changed if the photo ID might be difficult to obtain (for an excellent example of the difficulty in getting a photo ID take a look at the letter to the editor from Justice St. Rain entitled "Going through ordeal to get mom's photo ID" also published in the January 14, 2008, The Indianapolis Star; and take a look at some of the nasty responses to that letter in the online "TalkBack)? Were those responding to the poll informed that Republicans passed these sorts of laws over the objections of Democrats? Were respondents told that no evidence (at least in Indiana) of voter impersonation at the polls existed? Were respondents told that a corollary requirement of voter ID was not mandated for absentee balloting or voter registration? I'm curious to know how those respondents would have answered when presented with a more robust set of facts and if presented with the arguments for both sides.

Unfortunately, it is too easy to craft a poll with a virtually predetermined outcome, simply by wording the question in a particular way. Pollsters do it all the time. Equally unfortunately, too few Americans really understand how polling works to ask the questions about the validity and integrity of a poll. Thus, results like those Rokita cites are all too common and too many Americans put their faith in what their fellow citizens appear to "believe," all based on polls.

The other, even more troubling, issue raised by Rokita's citation of the poll results, is the idea that if a majority supports something, it must be acceptable. However, that goes against the very framework of a constitutional democracy like ours. I'm sure that a majority of Americans would support a whole host of laws doing one thing or another; however, whether the majority supports them or not is wholly irrelevant if the thing being legislated is protected by the Constitution. I would wager that a large percentage of Americans would favor preventing Muslims from voting or even kicking Muslims out of the country if they are critical of US policy. Yet, we all know that would be prohibited by the Constitution. I suspect that a large percentage of Americans would support a law mandating Christian prayer in public schools, notwithstanding the prohibition on the establishment of religion found in the First Amendment.

One of the greatest strengths of our constitutional democracy is that, while the will of the majority is considered in the formulation of most laws and policies, that will can never trump the constitutionally protected rights of the minority. So, while the majority may favor a law or policy that infringes upon the rights of certain minority groups, the constitutional rights of those minority groups cannot be abrogated or infringed. Voting is a core right (not just granted to particular minority groups); in fact, it is the very foundation of the constitutional democracy. That a majority may feel that it is acceptable to hinder the ability of some small group to fully and equally participate in the democratic process does not justify the imposition of such hindrances.

Todd Rokita is wrong to point to polls as support for his position on a constitutional question. Polls may be fine for whether to adopt or not adopt some broad policy, but they are not valid for determining whether to infringe upon Constitutionally protected rights. Shame on him for not recognizing this and for taking this underhanded approach to a addressing such an important issue.

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