Partisanship Overshadows Policy in Voter Access Debates

By Rob Moore

Last summer, the New Jersey state legislature passed The Democracy Act, a bill that would have automatically registered voters who applied for driver’s licenses in the state and would allow for online voter registration. Last week, after five months of sitting on the bill, Governor and Presidential Candidate Chris Christie vetoed the bill, citing fraud and “political gamesmanship.”

Over the past decade, tension has risen over partisan wrangling about voting rights. Kicking off with the controversial 2003 redistricting cycle that led Texas Democrats to flee across state lines in order to stop a partisan redistricting bill from being able to be voted on, continuing through a series of voter ID bills passed in the wake of the 2010 elections, and culminating in the 2013 Supreme Court Decision Shelby v. Holder, voting rights debates have been extremely controversial and partisan.

There are two aspects to election and voting rights: policy and politics.

On the policy side, the debate breaks down to arguments about fraud versus arguments about franchise. While some in America see voter fraud as a major issue, most rigorous public policy studies find that voter fraud prevalence in the United States is overstated. In the absence of voter fraud occurring, and with little worry that expanding the franchise will cause more fraud, lowering barriers to voting such as eliminating ID requirements, making it easier to register, and allowing for early and mail-in voting, seems straightforward.

But then we need to talk about politics. According to a report last year by the Government Accountability Office, voter ID lawsdisproportionately hurt voter turnout rates for young and black Americans, two demographic groups that skew strongly Democratic. This is why every push for Voter ID that has happened nationwide over the past five years has been pushed by the Republican Party: it helps their party’s electoral prospects. Similar arguments can be made for registration and early voting.

If one party is disproportionately hurt by a policy, tough luck. The party system in America is supposed to serve our Democracy, not the other way around. If a party can only survive by creating barriers between the general public and the voting booth, then we need to create political institutions that weaken the power of that party. This could mean taking the Nebraska route, whose nonpartisan state institutions have held off voter ID laws year after year, despite large Republican majorities in the legislature. Whatever the answer is, good policy originates in good political institutions, and partisanship overtakes and corrupts institutions that aren’t strong enough on their own.
Rob Moore is a Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He writes on state policy and the politics of public policy.