The Voting Wars: The Battle over Election Rules

In his preface to The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown, Richard L. Hasen explains how Americans’ belief in electoral integrity has changed over the years—in particular, since 2000, the year of the presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Prior to the election, people tended to see “stolen elections as a thing of the past,” and those who called vote-counting into question would often be perceived as political outliers.

Enter November 2000: Florida, a swing state and a critical battleground between Bush and Gore, becomes the center of a thirty-six-day dispute as both sides wrangle over who actually won the election. The Supreme Court steps in more than once to resolve the conflict, but on the third and final time, it controversially votes 5-4 to stop the Florida recount, effectively declaring Bush the new President-elect of the United States.

Hasen goes on to argue that the ugly dispute “altered American elections and put great stress on the public’s faith in electoral integrity.” It tellingly exposed two major issues that continue to plague elections to this day: first, the technological, organizational and political flaws that threaten the voting process; and second, the way different factions play up controversies—not all of which are relevant—for self-serving purposes.

Indeed, our problems with the voting wars have only just begun: watch Hasen in his recent presentation at the Brennan Center as he introduces another acrimonious clash between Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin, 2011 (the example begins at 3:22):

As shown by the debacle in Wisconsin, Republicans tend to be quicker than Democrats to allege voter fraud. Hasen is unambiguous in his judgment of such behavior, labeling such actions as tactics from the “Fraudulent  Fraud Squad.” One such tactic that he discusses extensively in his book is voter identification laws. Democrats tend to view such requirements as thinly-veiled attempts to suppress the minority vote, as people with limited means would be hit especially hard by the obligation to fork out money and travel long distances in order to obtain the correct type of identification. And in the view of the Democrats, it’s no coincidence that such people tend to be more likely to vote for the left. Hasen points out that over-emphasizing voter ID laws is misguided, because even though fraud does occur during elections, it is by and large not the type of fraud that stricter voter ID laws would prevent.

But Democrats aren’t innocent in the voting wars either. Just as Republicans are too eager to cry voter fraud, Democrats are prone to claim voter suppression. In the 2000 election, Democrats asserted that Republicans were deliberately making it difficult for African Americans to vote, such as by setting up physical roadblocks. Such claims often compare Republican-driven voting requirements to the Jim Crow laws from the 19th century, which systematically obstructed African Americans from voting. Although Hasen takes issue with this comparison, he concedes that some of the Democrats’ claims are justifiable. Sometimes, however, the Republican intent to suppress the Democratic vote is not even effective, and other times it is near-impossible to tell. But what Hasen firmly asserts is that, like Republicans, Democrats like to play on people’s doubts about electoral integrity to bring in money and bring out voters.

As America draws closer to the next presidential election, Hasen warns that the next conflict over voting results will be even messier than 2000. Because of the dramatic rise of social media, “[t]he rancor will be amplified as partisan tweets, instant messages, blog posts, and Facebook messages reach people instantaneously over their smartphones, laptops, and tablets.” In no uncertain terms, Hasen spells out the danger of such a scenario: “The controversy could threaten the very legitimacy of the next president, as well as the courts, which almost certainly would be called upon as the final arbiters of a postelection controversy.”

Richard L. Hasen is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science, University of California, Irvine School of Law and a respected authority on election law. For further reading, check out the book’s website, the Election Law Blog that Hasen edits, as well as his Twitter page and #thevotingwars hashtag; or, you can listen to Hasen‘s recent interview on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show.

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Categories: American History, Blogs, Current Affairs, Law, Modern History, Political Science

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