Voting Rights, Clarified

Yesterday, the shadowy Editorial Board had me type up and publish a press release. You can read that here. They asked me to clarify their stance, so allow me to tell you why voting suppression is such an injustice.

Voting is the fundamental right in a democracy. Everything that follows, everything we love or hate or fear or cherish in this country flows, a river from that act of expression. The entire premise of a democratic society is that everyone has a say, and that the collective will of you, the people is embodied in the men and women we choose to represent us. Those men and women are chosen, freely and without malice, to give voice to our voices, to guide the spirit of this nation.

We recognize and understand that our founding fathers distrusted democracy, the tyranny of the masses. That’s familiar to us. We all know that a person can make bad choices, and that people can make them worse. But if we are to be free, we have to recognize the truth that a consequence of that freedom is abiding by the will of the people, even when we disagree (now, there’s obviously some room for complication here, but that’s for another time). It means agreeing on the legitimacy of participative democracy. Acknowledging the responsibility of shared rule is an important element of fairness, as I’ve written before.

Both Rawls and Sen write about the vital importance of voting. It’s one of Rawls’ two principles of Justice. In A Theory of Justice, he writes that (emphasis mine)

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

He further says that:

I should note that the reasons for requiring open positions are not solely, or even primarily, those of efficiency. I have not maintained that offices must be open if in fact everyone is to benefit from an arrangement. For it may be possible to improve everyone’s situation by assigning certain powers and benefits to positions despite the fact that certain groups are excluded from them. Although access is restricted, perhaps these offices can still attract superior talent and encourage better performance. But the principle of open positions forbids this. It expresses the conviction that if some places were not open on a basis fair to all, those kept out would be right in feeling unjustly treated even though they benefited from the greater efforts of those who were allowed to hold them. 

Amartya Sen, in Development As Freedom, includes “political freedom” as one of his five instrumental freedoms, writing that:

Political freedoms, broadly conceived (including what are called civil rights), refer to the opportunities that people have to determine who should govern and on what principles, and also include the possibility to scrutinize and criticize authorities to have freedom of political expression and an uncensored press, to enjoy the freedom to choose between political parties, and so on. They include the political entitlements associated with democracies in the broadest sense (encompassing opportunities of political dialogue, dissent and critique as well as voting rights and participatory selection of legislators and executives).

That’s why voter suppression is so vile. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, there is absolutely no excuse for gerrymandering; for restrictive voter ID laws; for any obstructions to registration. It is an act of political malfeasance bordering on the inhumane. Anywhere a single American is denied their right to vote, they have been silenced. Their voice has been extinguished by an unjust and indefensible exercise of naked power.

In case anyone is inclined to wonder about why something like a Voter ID law is repressive, I’d direct you to this piece, about just that kind of law passed in Wisconsin. In particular:

By one estimate, 300,000 eligible voters in the state lacked valid photo IDs heading into the election; it is unknown how many people did not vote because they didn’t have proper identification. But it is not hard to find the Navy veteran whose out-of-state driver’s license did not suffice, or the dying woman whose license had expired, or the recent graduate whose student ID was deficient — or Harris, who at 66 made her way to her polling place despite chronic lung disease and a torn ligament in her knee.

If you want to crack down on fraud, that’s one thing. But it’s another to maintain the ridiculous and pernicious fiction that that’s still your goal after study after study shows that voter fraud just isn’t happening in the kind of numbers Republicans claim.

That’s why Trump’s announcement of an “investigation” into (nonexistent) voter fraud is so disgusting. It is an act of disenfranchisement, a tyrannical expression of the worst authoritarian impulses of our leaders. It will hurt the most vulnerable in our nation, the very people who need the most help, the very people who could shift the political balance in Washington and in state capitals around the country. And Republicans know this. The poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed would not vote for candidates who support policies that further degrade their spirits and violate their dignity, and Republicans know this.

We hear a tremendous amount, these days, about serious problems. The climate crisis. Income inequality. Poor health & education outcomes. But all of these stem from the fact that for many of our citizens, our “representative democracy” isn’t.

Categories: Dispatch


3 replies

  1. “People might claim that “democratic socialism” is different than socialism, but that’s almost as ridiculous as claiming that “democratic rape” is different than rape; if that’s true, “democratic rape” must be a good thing, right?” (


  2. Did you mean to Ctrl+V that passage here? I’m afraid you’re trolling the wrong blog. This is about voting rights.



  1. Fairness and the Original Position – The Georgia Wonk

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