George Will Gets (Almost) Everything Wrong About Voting Rights

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The conservative columnist describes a world that's completely unrecognizable to anyone who followed the story of the 2012 election.

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Associated Press

There are so many things wrong with George Will's latest column on voting that it's hard to know where to begin. Actually, that's not right. It's easy to know where to begin. The very title of the piece, "Mountain out of a molehill," is offensive to every American whose right to vote was jeopardized this past election cycle by Republican voter-suppression efforts.

Will's piece is 14 paragraphs long and the only one that survives close scrutiny is the first, because it consists mostly of a quote from Carl Sandburg. The other 13 paragraphs render wholly unrecognizable both the voting-rights battles of 2012 and the national debate over how those battles ought to be resolved. Let's take it one graph at a time.

Paragraph 2. Will argues first that the Obama Administration is "mounting a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory." But the link Will cites for this proposition says nothing about either federal registration or mandatory voting. Here is that link. Judge for yourself. As election-law expert Rick Hasen has long pointed out, there are many good reasons to federalize some of our voting processes. And as virtually every credible election expert has noted, forcing people to vote is (and has always been) unconstitutional.

Paragraph 3: Will asserts that Attorney General Eric Holder wants "Washington to register everyone automatically." Here is what Holder actually said earlier this month during an important speech at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library:

For example, by creating a system of automatic, portable registration -- in which government officials use existing databases, with appropriate privacy protections, to automatically register every eligible voter in America and enable their registration to move when they do, rather the current system in which voters must navigate complicated and often-changing voter registration rules -- we could not only improve the integrity of our elections, but save precious taxpayer resources.

Next, Will asserts that "the fact many people do not register to vote is not evidence that the franchise is restricted, other than by voters' inertia." It's no doubt true that many Americans aren't registered to vote because they don't want to be registered to vote. But it's also patently true that partisan state officials all over the country this past year tried to make it harder, or impossible, for people who wanted to register to actually do so. In late August, for example, a federal judge blocked Florida's effort to restrict registration. Will completely ignores this.

Paragraph 4: Will argues that his readers should evaluate the feds' ability to "superintend elections capably" in light of what he calls a "loopy" statement by Holder that America should "rethink this whole notion that voting only occurs on Tuesday." It's hard to know what Will thinks is loopy about this -- after all, Will knows that Holder knows many states now offer no-excuse absentee voting, early voting, or voting by mail -- and the columnist never explains. In any event, this paragraph ignores the efforts of partisan operators like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who fought wildly to restrict early voting in his state.


Paragraphs 5-6. Here Will acknowledges, as he must, that terribly long lines now mark virtually every federal election. He argues that this occurs "frequently because of questions about voters' registration. Then he cites Hans von Spakovsky for the proposition that federal law -- the National Voter Registration Act -- is to blame for this problem. But Spakovsky's credibility was roundly challenged in this memorable October article by The New Yorker's Jane Mayer. And there are many other reasons, including outrageously long ballot language in Florida, for those unacceptably long lines.

Paragraph 7. Here Will revs up his anti-Washington screed. He takes a perfectly reasonable comment by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez -- "our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders" -- and twists it into a policy option that no Obama Administration official has (to my knowledge, anyway) ever proposed: Nonvoting should be penalized. Will ends this paragraph with the question: "Why not mandatory voting?" without (again) telling his readers that such an option is clearly unconstitutional.

Paragraph 8. Now Will switches the bait. He writes that "lower turnouts ... have coincided with the removal of impediments to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements)." He's arguing here, I think, that nonvoting is an American tradition which the federal government should respect rather than ameliorate. But the debate over voting rights today isn't about convincing people who don't want to vote that they should. It's about making it easier for people who do want to vote to be able to do so.

Paragraph 9. Here Will begins to list "obvious reasons for nonvoting." Obvious Reason No 1: "One is contentment. Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable." This patronizing statement is an affront to people like Jacqueline Kane, the elderly woman in Pennsylvania whose voting rights were threatened by officials there. It ignores the plight of men like Craig Debose, a Vietnam veteran who traveled 11 hours by train this summer to testify in court in Washington for his right to vote in South Carolina. These voters, who fought against suppression efforts this year, surely were not "comfortable" about not voting.

Paragraph 10: Will's Obvious Reason for Nonvoting No. 2: 
Second, the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-1933, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes. The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.
This is supposed to be jarring and profound. It's actually creepy and absurd. It's also inaccurate. A most essential right -- the right to vote -- surely was menaced this past election cycle by Republican officials in states including Ohio, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. For people like Kane and Debose, and for millions of other registered voters across the country, the "stakes of politics" were as high as they could have been this past year. Perhaps this is why turnout for President Obama was so high and why some evidence suggests that partisan suppression efforts motivated voters to exercise their franchise.
 
Paragraph 11: Will's third "obvious reason" for nonvoting is that "many state races are without suspense." But the nation's attention on voter suppression (and voting rights and voter fraud) weren't focused this past year on all those non-battleground states. It was focused upon states like Ohio and Florida and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states which would (and which did) determine the outcome of the 2012 election. In each of those states, Republican officials sought to make it harder for some registered citizens to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted. Will didn't mention that fact, even once.

Paragraph 12: Will's final "obvious reason for nonvoting is that "gerrymandered federal and state legislative districts reduce competitive races." Again, in trying to justify why tens of millions of Americans chose not to vote Will completely ignores the fact that tens of millions of Americans had their votes discounted by partisan gerrymandering efforts. In fact, you could argue, as Dave Weigel has, that "ridiculous" gerrymanders helped Republicans keep control of the House of Representatives. But there wasn't a peep about that here from George Will.

Paragraph 13:  This paragraph is perhaps the worst of all; a voting-law expert easily could write a book about what it expresses and what it infers. Will argues that voting isn't and shouldn't be for everyone and that the law should filter out "potential voters with the weakest motivations." Here's how it ends: "As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls -- or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting -- the caliber of the electorate must decline." More voters is a bad thing, in Will's view, if those voters aren't the right kind of voters.

Who gets to decide which "motivations" for voting are "weak" and which aren't? Who gets to determine which voters have sufficient "civic competence" to warrant a ballot and which do not? Will argues that it should be state officials, the same state officials who passed nakedly partisan voting laws this election cycle the effect of which was to disenfranchise people who were too old or too sick or too poor or too black or too Hispanic to overcome them. Would more federal involvement solve all the election problems we saw this election cycle? Of course not. Would it help? Of course it would.

Paragraph 14: Having created the straw man -- nonvoting as a choice which ought to be respected -- Will then tears it down. He ends by lamenting the planned national response to the "non-problem of people choosing not to vote." In the entire piece he does not use the words "voter suppression," or cite the Voting Rights Act or the successful manner in which it was employed by the Justice Department and the federal courts to protect the right to vote for millions of registered voters. Nor did he mention the fact that "voter fraud" was again virtually non-existent this election cycle.  

In George Will's world of voting rights, mountains are molehills and molehills are mountains. In his world, voters happily self-suppress themselves and federal officials are secretly planning to force reluctant citizens to exercise their franchise. In his world, Hans von Spakovsky is worth citing and the federal judges who blunted the worst of the Republican voter suppression efforts are worth ignoring. 

In the real world, thankfully, reasonable people recognize the magnitude of the voting problem this past election cycle and are trying to do something productive about it.
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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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