Several years ago, I thought about attempting a nonfiction book for young readers about election fraud in the United States. As convincingly catalogued by Tracy Campbell in Deliver the Vote, his book on this topic for adults, this country has an all-too-rich history of corruption and distortion of the will of the people at election time.
The tale of Box 13, which got Lyndon B. Johnson elected senator in 1948, is my personal favorite. But it’s the accumulation of stories — rather than any one in particular — that I wanted our young people to grasp. I wanted them to understand that, as in so many areas of our democracy, we have vast room for improvement.
(Campbell’s book touches relatively lightly on what is the biggest mechanism for distortion in presidential elections: the Electoral College. For more on that, I highly recommend Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution.)
Ultimately, I set the project aside because, as the debacle of the 2000 election receded into memory, I figured the market for a book on such a dour topic would be iffy at best. But, boy, do I wish now that I had stuck with that project, because I cannot imagine a more timely subject for young readers to learn more about this fall as we await the impact of several recently passed voter ID laws.
Purportedly, these Republican-backed laws requiring photo ID at the polls will prevent election fraud committed by individuals showing up and voting in someone else’s name. In reality, there’s pretty much zero evidence of this type of fraud actually occurring — but plenty of evidence that poor, urban, nonwhite, and/or elderly people are less likely than GOP voters to have photo ID, and thus more likely to be prevented from voting.
“How can they not have a photo ID? Why, these days you need a photo ID for everything from blah blah blah” — just spare me, OK?
People in this country have not fought and died for the right to buy beer or cash a check, but they have absolutely fought and died for the right to vote. How dare anyone dishonor those sacrifices by implementing unnecessary restrictions on voting without going out of their way to guarantee that there have been sufficient time and preparation to prevent any American from being disenfranchised? The only reason to rush is if you’re trying to ensure a particular outcome of the November 2012 elections, by any means necessary.
If you read only one piece about how these voter ID laws fit into the history of efforts to thwart democracy in this country, I recommend this interview with Congressman John Lewis, who personally knows what the fight for voting rights has entailed:
The forces that fought against the goals and aims of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s are very similar to the forces standing against voting rights today. Fifty years ago, they were primarily Southern segregated and racist groups who used brute force, arrests and violence to discourage people from participating. Today those forces are not just relegated to the American South, but they are operating throughout our country.
The documented incidences of voter fraud are very rare, yet throughout the country, forces have mobilized in over 30 states to stop it. These efforts are very partisan. They are not using overt violence and harassment, but subtle, more sophisticated devices to discourage and prevent people from participating in the electoral process.
To make it hard, to make it difficult almost impossible for people to cast a vote is not in keeping with the democratic process. Someone once said, “Man is not made for the law; law is made for man”. Customs, traditions, laws should be flexible, within good reason, if that is what it takes to make our democracy work. We should be creative, and we should accommodate the needs of every community to open up the democratic process. We should make it easy and accessible for every citizen to participate.
The book I would have written would have made clear to young readers that, for all of our country’s stated ideals and admirable traits, we have a historical tendency to fraudulently influence and alter the outcomes of our elections.
The book I would write today would make clear that these voter ID laws don’t address that tendency — they exemplify it.