First let me acknowledge up front what many conservatives will see as a bias in the framing of this essay. Some will argue that the real question is Do Democrats really try to skew elections through voter fraud?
So let me treat that question first, very briefly.
There have been many and frequent investigations into this concern over the last decade and they have all concluded that there is no significant or systemic voter fraud being committed by Democrats in major elections.
Accusations sometimes get made and they are promptly investigated, and it turns out that either the allegations were incorrect, or the improper voting was the result of error rather than malice — and in any event, the number of votes in question are trivial.
“It’s part of the mythology now in the Republican Party that there’s widespread voter fraud across the country,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican political operative, speaking recently on MSNBC. “In fact, there’s not.”
The reasons that voting fraud by Democrats doesn’t occur are pretty simple:
First, the voting systems in most of the key battleground states are controlled by Republicans. Second, the system is monitored closely by attorneys and civil servants from all sides.
Finally, and most significantly, Democrats have no motive to cheat in this way. Democrats have a vast pool of voters available at their disposal.
Their challenge isn’t a shortage of bodies — which would make it necessary to recruit illegal immigrants or repeat voters — it’s a problem of motivation.
So rather than engineers some massive, complex and legally risky scheme to get people to go to the polls fraudulently, Democrats have instead created a massive, complex and legally proper system to get legitimate voters to go to the polls.
It’s cheaper, it’s more effective, and at the end of the day you don’t go to prison for it.
Now let’s pivot to Republicans, where the question of motive is very different. Republicans do, in fact, have a problem with an actual shortage of voters.
Demographically speaking, if all eligible Americans voted, Republican politicians would have very little chance of winning. They would be overwhelmed by the minority and young voters who tend to vote Democratic in high percentages.
In a 1980 speech, one of the founders of the modern conservative movement, Paul Weyrich, addressed this dilemma, laying out an argument that has shaped much of the political climate since.
“How many of our conservative Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome?” Weyrich asked contemptuously. “Good government. They want everybody to vote.”
“I don’t want everybody to vote. [Weyrich continued.] Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
In 1980, when Weyrich threw down this gauntlet, the demographics were actually much kinder to conservatives.
The population of Democratic-leaning urbanites, blacks, Hispanics, unmarried voting-age women and young people was significantly lower.
In the thirty-two years since that time, the voting calculus — and thus the motivation to tip the scales — has grown steadily and rapidly more painful for conservatives.
Some within the Republican Party have argued that the movement should embrace the new America, finding messages that would appeal to minorities and younger voters.
But so far, the right-wing of the movement has prevailed. GOP candidates have skewed further and further to the right, winning less and less support from Hispanics, blacks and young people.
This makes it even more important (from the conservative point of view) that whiter, older voters continue to play a disproportionately high role in elections.
How do Republicans accomplish this? For the most part, perfectly legally.
They push for new laws that require additional hurdles before voting, including the possession of identification which many poor, minority Americans lack.
Republicans have also moved aggressively to limit the number of early voting options, particularly those available in urban communities and neighborhoods that tend to vote against their politicians.
In 2012, this has meant three- to four-hour waits for many low income voters who simply want to cast their ballots.
In minority neighborhoods, conservative groups have also posted threatening billboards — many written in Spanish — that warn of arrests and felony charges for people who commit voter fraud.
These may not sound like big hurdles, but politics is often a game of very small percentages. If adding one more step to the voting process, or one more nervous qualm about an encounter with authorities, causes a small chunk of black and Hispanic voters to drop away — that’s a victory for the GOP.
Conservatives often couch these tactics in terms that reflect a desire to defend the sanctity of the voting “privilege.” Here’s how Florida Republican Mike Bennett explained it, speaking on the floor of the state Senate last year:
“Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it? Do we want to go to their house? Take the polling booth with us?
“This is a hard-fought privilege. This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient? The guy who died to give you that right, it was not convenient. Why would we make it any easier? I want ’em to fight for it. I want ’em to know what it’s like. I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.”
Unfortunately, this kind of thing falls into a long tradition — one that begins literally at the time of emancipation — of limiting voting rights through the establishment of poll taxes, literacy tests, passage of laws that ban voting by convicted felons, or through outright intimidation.
In modern times, of course, suppression efforts aren’t so egregious. Voters aren’t physically threatened. But again, it’s a game of percentages.
If political operatives can make it just a little more inconvenient for black voters than for white voters, that may be enough to swing the outcome.
I do think that this tactic has a limited future for Republicans. Last August, Senator Lindsay Graham told the Washington Post that the GOP has to broaden its appeal.
“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” he argued. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
Indeed, this general strategy — maximizing white voters and doing everything legally possible to minimize the impact of minority voters — gets harder and harder as the percentage of whites in the overall population dwindles.
By 2016, the growth of legal Hispanic voters in states like Arizona and Colorado may have put those states out of reach for a Republican candidate with the get-tough-on-undocumented-workers message that Mitt Romney carried.
“This is the last time [a GOP presidential candidate] will try to do this,” a Republican operative told the National Journal, speaking of the Republican Party’s white-majority electoral strategy.
Which leaves the question of how all this will affect today’s vote, particularly in close-fought states such as Florida and Ohio where Republican voter-suppression measures have been the source of intense court battles.
The short answer is, Nobody knows. If the outcome is balanced on the edge of a knife, it could well matter that certain groups of Americans faced a longer, more difficult road to the ballot box.