Rules of the Game

When you teach political science or public administration, you try to explain to students the importance of systems–the rules of the game.

Most Americans watch political campaigns much the same way as they watch football or baseball–as a contest between two (or more) competitors. May the best team win. We recognize that there are rules, that fouls should be punished and not rewarded, but it all seems pretty transparent.

The rules that govern elections aren’t so easily observed, and partisans work hard to rig them. As the Indianapolis Star observed in an editorial this morning,

“state law also has discouraged voter turnout. Indiana’s polls, for example, close at 6 p.m. on Election Day, an earlier cutoff than in many other states. The early close at the polls makes it difficult for many workers, including those with children to drop off or pick up and those with lengthy commutes to work, to show up on Election Day. Indiana also has been slow to adopt innovations such as early voting centers and Election Day voting centers, which eliminate the need to turn out at a specific polling site on a specified day.

Indiana also presents third parties with a higher threshold for ballot access than many other states. The inability to get their candidates on the ballot discourages would-be voters who don’t fit within Democratic or Republican silos.”

This year, Indianapolis voters saw a particularly egregious example of efforts at vote suppression, when the local GOP adamantly refused to authorize satellite voting centers. The rule is that such changes must receive a unanimous vote from the Election Board, and the Republican member consistently blocked the Clerk’s effort to establish convenient polling places. Initially, he argued that setting up satellite sites would be “too expensive.” When a local union offered to pay the (really pretty modest) cost, he still refused–although if he offered a justification for his intransigence, I didn’t hear it.

Coming on the heels of Todd Rokita’s efforts to make voting more difficult for the poor and elderly, by requiring the sort of IDs that most of us privileged folks–who are more likely to vote Republican-already have, it is hard to see this as anything but a continuation of efforts to make voting more difficult for populations that skew Democrat.

The pious justification for the ID requirement was prevention of fraud (although the only documented cases of voter fraud involved absentee ballots, which were not part of the “reform” effort). There is no justification for prevention of satellite voting centers.

As the Star points out, it’s the height of hypocrisy to bemoan Indiana’s low turnout at the same time lawmakers are doing everything possible to keep people from the polls.

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Playing Politics

Last week, the Indiana Court of Appeals struck down the state’s controversial “Voter ID” law.

 For those of you who somehow missed the intensely political arguments about the motives for and effects of that measure—the most restrictive in the nation—let me briefly recap its somewhat checkered history.

 The measure was originally championed by Secretary of State Todd Rokita, and passed by Republican majorities in the Statehouse. Democrats sued, supported by a number of organizations, including the AARP, Rock the Vote and the NAACP.  They argued that the law violated the federal constitution by effectively disenfranchising many poor and elderly voters who, not so incidentally, tend to vote disproportionately Democratic. They also pointed out that Indiana had been unable to identify any instances of in-person voter fraud. (Where fraud had been confirmed, it was within the absentee ballot process, but the Voter ID law doesn’t apply to absentee voting.)  

 The Democrats lost in a split opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court, although the Court left the door open for a future challenge. The Supreme Court based its opinion largely on the absence of concrete evidence that the law had prevented people from casting ballots. The Democrats had been unable to identify real people who had been adversely affected by the law.

 The recent Indiana Court of Appeals case was brought by the League of Women Voters, and was based on a different theory and a different constitution. This time, the argument was that Indiana’s Constitution requires all voters to be treated uniformly, and that the Voter ID law treats absentee voters and in-person voters differently. The Court unanimously agreed.  

 If the legislature wants to keep the law, in other words, they’ll have to apply it to all voters, not just those who show up in person.

 This seems eminently reasonable, but Governor Daniels was quick to accuse all three judges who issued the opinion of “playing politics.” This rhetoric is unfortunate on a number of levels. It betrays unfamiliarity with the arguments involved, and—worse—paints judges as no more than partisans in robes. Such attacks, as the Indiana Bar Association pointed out, undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system.

Daniel’s intemperate reaction also appears to confirm suspicions that the Voter ID law was itself a partisan effort. As Doug Masson of Masson’s Blog observed in the wake of Daniel’s outburst, “The facts fit together better if you discard the premise that voter fraud was the purpose of the Voter ID law, and replace it with the premise that one political party, temporarily ascendant, saw fit to pass a law that would shave a percentage point or two off the other side’s votes. The Republicans made a calculation that the voters who would vote in person and not have identification would skew Democratic. That calculus changes if you apply the ID requirements to those who vote absentee. Therefore, the absentee voters weren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny.”

In other words, the judges weren’t the ones playing politics.