One of the key questions explored by political philosophers like Hobbes and Locke was that of the foundation of legitimate political authority. When the 13 colonies revolted against the rule of the king, they also sought a foundation on which to ground political authority. While there are many ways to solve this problem, the founders of the United States elected to adopt a philosophy shaped heavily by John Locke. The basic idea is that legitimate political authority requires the consent of the governed and that the majority should rule. Being aware of what Mill later called the tyranny of the majority, the founders put in place constitutional protections against possible oppressive incursions by the majority (and the state).
While these ideas appeal to me psychologically because of my upbringing, they also stand up well to philosophical scrutiny. As such, I accept that political legitimacy stems from the consent of the governed and that majority rule with proper protection against the tyranny of the majority is a good idea. There are, of course, those who disagree with these views—but that fight goes far beyond the intended scope of this short essay. For the sake of this essay, I will assume that these two basic principles are correct—leaving it open that they could be refuted.
Since the legitimacy of the government depends on the consent of the governed, it is essential to this legitimacy that the governed can provide or withhold their consent. As a practical matter, voting is a key part of this consent. A citizen can also provide consent by not voting—if they are free to vote and elect not to do so. If a citizen is denied the right to vote unjustly, then their consent is not secured. This weakens the legitimacy of the government since the government would be extending its authority beyond the consent provided by the citizens. To avoid a charge of absurdity, I must make it clear that I am not claiming that disenfranchising a single citizen destroys the legitimacy of the state. Rather, each unjustly disenfranchised citizen reduces the legitimacy of the state by a miniscule amount. I cannot, of course, draw an exact line at which a state would lose legitimacy by disenfranchisement—to require this would be to fall victim to the line drawing fallacy. But if the majority of citizens were unjustly disenfranchised, then that would seem to be a clear case in which the state would lack legitimacy. At levels less than this, the legitimacy of the state would be reduced proportionally to the degree of unjust disenfranchisement. Roughly put, the more citizens that are unjustly disenfranchised, the less legitimate the state. Individual citizens who are unjustly disenfranchised can make a good case that they now owe little or no obedience to the state that has disenfranchised them—but this is a matter for another essay. Suffice it to say that the principle of no taxation without representation is well established in the United States.
While we publicly and loudly praise the right to vote, the United States has a long and persistent history of unjust disenfranchisement. While the past is of interest, what is of great practical concern is the present unjust disenfranchisement of citizens.
One standard means of disenfranchising voters unjustly is to use the specter of voter fraud to “justify” various measures that deny citizens their right to vote. While voter fraud does exist, all the evidence shows that it is incredibly rare. To use an analogy, the obsession with voter fraud is like a person who thinks that Americans face a grave danger from excessive exercise and that obesity is not a serious problem. As such, they work hard to impose restrictions and limits on exercise while expressing no concerns about the health effects of being overweight. While athletic overtraining does occur, it is not a problem that afflicts the general population and the focus should be on the greater problem. Likewise for voter fraud and voter suppression: voter fraud does occur, but the real problem is voter suppression.
There is also the fact that the methods put forth as addressing voter fraud are often ineffective against the sort of fraud that has occurred. These methods, however, tend to be effective at disenfranchising legitimate voters, especially narrowly targeted voters. One example is the Republican’s voter ID law in North Dakota that requires voters to have an ID that shows a street address. Many native American voters live in rural areas and have PO boxes rather than street addresses and they are now trying to get new IDs that meet the requirement of the law. In terms of why the law exists, it is not because there was an epidemic of fraudulent voting by people using legitimate government IDs that lack street addresses. Rather, it is because Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp won her election by less than 3,000 votes in 2012. 80% of majority-Native counties voted for her, so suppressing their votes could help spell victory for her Republican challenger. This law will also impact other citizens.
Another example of voter suppression, one that is on the ballot this fall in my adopted state of Florida, is restricting felons from voting even after they have served their sentences. Under Rick Scott, Florida has a Kafkaesque system by which felons can attempt to regain their right to vote. If the voters make the correct decision this fall, this could be changed so that most felons have their voting rights automatically restored after the serve their sentence. While felon disenfranchisement impacts Republican and Democratic voters, it is generally seen as impacting Democrats more—which explains why Republicans tend to favor it more than Democrats.
There are various other ways in which citizens are unjustly disenfranchised, most of which are the result of strategies of the Republican party. It might be countered that I and the Democrats are only concerned about voter suppression because the voters being targeted are more likely to vote for Democrats. One might go beyond this and claim that I and the Democrats would be fine with the suppression of Republican voters. One might point to how Democrats engage in gerrymandering and other political trickery, perhaps even their own version of voter suppression.
My reply is that I cannot speak for the Democrats; but I can speak for myself. My view is that voter suppression is wrong regardless of who is being unjustly suppressed. As such, if the Democrats engage in voter suppression, I condemn that as strongly as I condemn voter suppression by Republicans. Or anyone, for that matter. While I would generally prefer that a Democrat win (if only from the pure self-interested fact that Democrats tend to be much friendlier to education and more pro-environment than Republicans), I would rather lose an election fairly than win through voter suppression. This is because, as noted above, voter suppression reduces the legitimacy of the state by robbing citizens unjustly of their opportunity to consent. In a nation that professes to be a democracy (yes, I know that it has a republican system at most levels) to rob citizens unjustly of their right to vote is a crime of the highest order. This is because it denies the foundational right of the citizens of a democracy and damages democracy itself. As such, voter suppression is treason, plain and simple.