Although the Republican party dominates Florida and Trump won the state in 2020, the Republicans in the state legislature passed an election bill aimed at reducing voting access. From the standpoint of keeping power, this is a smart move: Republican voters are a numerical minority and would find their hold on power eroding if they did not resort to voter suppression, gerrymandering and other anti-democratic strategies. Since I believe in democracy, I oppose these efforts.
It might be tempting to “refute” me by arguing that the Democrats would do the same thing if they were in the predicament of lagging in popular support. My response is that I oppose all anti-democratic efforts—even those undertaken by the Democrats. Fortunately, the Democrats generally do not need to use these methods—they are more likely to win by democratic means. Now, on to the discussion of this bill.
Republicans typically claim to favor small government. I also profess to favor minimal government and have argued in other essays that the state should restrict its laws to cases in which the harm needs to be addressed by law and the good the law does meaningfully outweigh any harms or costs of the law. This leads to the matter of whether this bill addresses a meaningful harm.
The Republicans are claiming that the bill is needed to make Florida elections more secure. The obvious problem with this claim is that the 2020 was secure. After the shameful debacle of 2000, Florida took many effective steps to improve the election system and 2020 went very well with no significant issues. There is, of course, the big lie of widespread election fraud—a claim that has been refuted at every turn. As such, there is no actual problem that needs to be addressed. In a way, this makes sense—the proposals are generally not aimed at addressing security concerns but with making it more difficult to vote. To illustrate, the bill limits the use of drop boxes and requires voters to request and absentee ballot for each election. While one could weave a tale of how a nefarious fraudster could exploit the current system, there is no evidence that this has ever happened to a significant degree. Rather, these new requirements just add two obstacles to voting. One could argue that these are minor inconveniences and voters who really care will overcome them—but that is not how election laws should work. They should make voting as easy as possible, consistent with maintaining election integrity—which is what Florida had prior to this bill.
A key focus of this bill is making voting by mail more difficult. Prior to 2020, about 33% of Florida’s voters (including Trump) voted by mail and most were Republicans. In 2020, the pandemic changed this: most voters who cast their ballots by mail were Democrats. With the defeat of Trump, the United States government has been able to act in a rational manner and respond effectively to the pandemic, so upcoming elections are likely to return to normal. Ironically, the Republicans could end up hurting themselves if most post-pandemic voting by mail would be done by Republicans. While there is some dispute over the exact impact of the bill, the experts tend to agree that these sorts of bills are aimed clearly at suppressing minority voters. But how do Republicans justify the bill?
Republicans do contend that they needed to pass the bill because it is popular with their constituents. The obvious counter is that the popularity of the bill is likely to be the result of the big lies told about the 2020 election. But to be fair, representatives can justly argue that they are just doing the will of their constituents. That they lied to about election fraud.
One odd justification was put forth by Blaise Ingoglia: “If the opposition says that we are creating barriers to voting, those barriers already exist in other states. But we never hear a peep from the opposition about those laws.” This might be an appeal to common practice fallacy: other states are doing it, so it is okay. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not make it good or correct. There is also the fact that there has been great opposition in other states—look at, for example, the response in Georgia.
Another justification put forth is the “one is too many” line of reasoning. “I believe that every legal vote should count,” said Travis Hutson, a Republican senator from Northeast Florida. “I believe one fraudulent vote is one too many. And I’m trying to protect the sanctity of our elections.” I do agree with Hutson that every legal vote should count and that fraudulent votes should not count. As I have argued in other essays, there are two main objectives in a democratic election. The first is that citizens can cast their ballots and have them count. The second is that election and voter fraud is prevented. In the ideal, every legitimate vote would count, and no fraudulent votes would count. While it is often empty hyperbole, the “one is too many” approach can be fraught with problems.
One obvious concern is that it can be used to justify excessive restrictions that cause more harm than they prevent. In the case of voting, the concern is that even if such restrictions prevent fraud, they will do so at the cost of disenfranchising legitimate voters. This is, of course, a version of the classic struggle between liberty and security and one must determine if the security works as claimed and if it is worth the cost in liberty. While elections could be run with the focus on having zero fraud, this would disenfranchise voters unless it is balanced with an equal commitment to ensuring access to voting. Like the presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system, this is a matter of values: is it better to have security that will disenfranchise legitimate voters to prevent fraud or is it better to run the risk of some fraud to avoid disenfranchising voters? As I have argued in other essays, I support a presumption in favor of voting rights and believe that this is rational since fraud is vanishingly small.
The Republicans in the legislature understand fraud is not a meaningful problem and they have been unable to provide evidence to justify the bill. When pressed about evidence of fraud, Ingoglia said “I don’t know, but I’m sure it was going on. Just the fact that they weren’t caught doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not happening.” This is garbage “reasoning.” He asserts that he does not know, then asserts that he is sure it was going on. But perhaps he is engaging in a bit of sophisticated epistemology in which he distinguishes between having knowledge and merely being sure that a claim is true. If so, I would be interested in seeing his theory of knowledge.
It is true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As such, he is right that we cannot be certain that no widespread fraud occurred simply because we have no evidence of such widespread fraud. But the burden of proof is on him and his fellows: they are claiming that the bill is needed to address fraud, so they need to provide evidence that fraud is occurring to justify this bill.
The fact that there is not absolute proof that widespread fraud did not occur does not prove that fraud did occur—to think otherwise would be to fall into an appeal to ignorance. While there is not absolute certainty in the Cartesian sense that fraud did not occur, the extensive investigations and plethora of lawsuits suffice to settle the matter to a degree that suffices. If bills were justified simply by the merest possibility that something might be occurring, then almost any restrictive bill would be justified—which would be absurd. For example, we do not know with absolute certainty that being a Republican or being exposed to one does not cause cancer—but this would hardly warrant a bill restricting Republicans. As such, the fraud argument fails.
As a closing point, if the Republicans succeed in restricting voter access, then they are reducing the legitimacy of the elections. Since the Republicans are cheating in their favor, if they win, then it is reasonable to think they won illegitimately. While it is true that the armed enforcers of the law will obey them when they “win”, the Republicans can justly be seen as illegitimate and hence unworthy of obedience. With few exceptions, they are an authoritarian anti-democratic movement aimed at destroying democracy in order to hold onto power.