Supporters of new laws to require North Carolinians to produce a government-issued form of photo identification every time they troop to the polls love to cite public opinion for the proposition that average North Carolinains are all for their idea. You’ve heard their mantra: “Public opinion polls show that large majorities support voter ID. This isn’t even a controversial idea for most people.” One prolific Republican tweeter had this to say earlier this morning:
“Polls consistently show 70% of NC in favor of voter ID. Calling all those people racist? Not brilliant.”
How’s that for preemptive spin manipulation? People who oppose mandatory photo ID for voting are calling the proponents “racists”??
This is, of course, hogwash.
First of all, no one is calling anyone a racist because of what he or she told a public opinion pollster and the tweeter knows this. This is not to say that some of the people and groups helping to drive the voter ID train don’t have occasionally troubling proclivities when it comes to race relations, but such people are, at worst, a tiny minority. For the overwhelming majority of the politicians leading the voter ID charge, it’s simply a matter of cold, hard, Karl Rovian politics. If these people decided that 45-to-59-year-old white insurance salesmen had become a tough demographic for them in the 2012 election, they’d come up with some way to depress the group’s turnout in 2014.
But the larger and more important point is that soundbite public opinion polls and spin manipulation are simply no way to make law when it comes to restricting such a precious and fundamental constitutional right as the franchise. If it were, Americans would already have a hell of lot fewer basic rights.
Think about it: How do you think some of our other basic constitutional rights and freedoms (especially the rights of those accused of crime) would fare in a soundbite public opinion poll? And what percentage of poll respondents do you think would support the free speech rights of unpopular groups like, say, the Klan or maybe a pro-Iranian cleric?
Sure, requiring photo ID for voting sounds simple and reasonable idea at first blush, but the problem is that voting restrictions are not a simple, first blush matter. They’re complicated as heck and have a huge impact on hundreds of thousands of people who aren’t regularly on the radar screens of average opinion poll respondents — poor people, elderly people, disabled people.
This is one of the reasons we have a written constitution and Bill of Rights in the first place — to protect the vulnerable and unpopular from the whims of the majority when it comes to fundamental rights. It’s also why we need something better than soundbite polling and policial spin when it comes to erecting roadblocks to citizen participation in this vital area.