Judging from big media’s slobbering acceptance of right wing attacks on ACORN’s voter registration efforts, it remains a far greater sin in America to be suspected of voter registration misdeeds than to forcibly and publicly, through deception and armed muscle, keep a registered citizen from voting.
Why is this?
Republican’s are brazen. They conduct their voter suppression campaigns in the open. Voter roll purges. Phone calls into minority neighborhoods on election day giving inaccurate polling locations. Armed thugs hired to play police or border patrol agents at the polls. Black people harassed by the cops on their way to vote.
Paul Weyrich, one of the acknowledged architects of the right wing ascendancy, said bluntly (in the video above), "I don’t want everybody to vote…our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Well, that’s about as undemocratic a sentiment as can be heard in a democracy.
So-called registration fraud has yet to lead to charges of any fraudulent voting. So, with voter suppression there are visible crimes. On the other side, there are vague suspicions leveled at the usual suspects in America: the poor and people of color.
The latter makes the headlines, even when there’s plenty of reason to suspect the suspicious. ACORN, it should be remembered, is the group New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias refused to investigate on orders from Karl Rove and President Bush. He was fired by them for following the law.
Again, why? Because it is, by political and cultural tradition, far, far easier to demonize and accuse than it is to champion the humanity, dignity and rights of others. We had witch hunts before we had a revolution on behalf of dignity and rights. And we’ve had a lot more witch hunts since the Revolution.
Americans walking down an unfamiliar city street are more likely to be on the lookout for dangerous criminals than they are to be scanning the sidewalk for unrecognized saints. Sadly, our brains are wired like this. We look for and remember the bad more readily than we see or remember the good. This is why negative campaign ads work so well.
When combined with our history of bigotry and hatred, this human tendency leads to habits of exclusion that become overwhelmingly powerful. They dominate our narratives, our politics, our news.
It took 140-plus years for women to earn the right to vote. It took about an hour for the John McCain campaign to get nationwide headlines about ACORN.
Still, something’s missing in the analysis. We’re ready to jail the pickpocket. But if we’re wired to be on the lookout for the bad, in a democracy the vote suppressor ought to be the baddest of the bad. But he escapes without even a metaphorical slap on the wrist.
Americans are proud of our experiment in democracy, proud to the point of investing its heroes, great moments and, as Sarah Palin says, its "exceptionalism," with a religiosity usually reserved for saints and holy places.
So it seems quite heretical that we would invent speed bumps, leashes for children and talking toasters before we’ve come close to achieving a voting system that safeguards everyone’s right to vote and makes sure every vote is counted.
But right from the beginning, American democracy excluded many. The franchise was denied slaves, freed slaves, women, the property-less. The unworthy (at least those not kept outside in chains) are treated like Protestants who’ve stumbled into a Catholic mass. They can, sometimes, stay and sit quietly, but they can’t participate in the sacraments.
This is the ugly truth. Many Americans believe, consciously or unconsciously, that there are others who should be denied the vote. They might quibble over who they are, but the practice of exclusion and suppression is not looked upon as something innately bad.
The denial of the right to vote is an accepted ritual practice in our democracy, which means we really haven’t achieved democracy at all. If there is any single act that is central to the health of democracy, it is the vote.
Without that, elections are little more than weight-lifting contests. Those with the muscle to keep their political enemies from the polls will win. Sometimes, of course, a vote suppressor will lose because he just has too many political enemies to excommunicate. But even this can lead to a dangerous apathy. The press will justify its shrugging acceptance of voter suppression campaigns by pointing out that they don’t always succeed.
But the press is the willing handmaiden of anti-democratic forces when it plays up "voter fraud" stories knowing in advance that the stories themselves carry an intimidation factor. Citizens whose communities have long been targets of law enforcement excesses have learned to steer clear of the suspected fraud of others. Voting, they fear after reading the stories, will lead them into the long arms of the law, even if they are legally registered, informed and caring citizens.
In my 2004 book, The Politics of Deceit, Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction, I called Republican voter suppression the most underreported political scandal of our time. It remains so. A resurgent and diligent progressive movement is forcing more press coverage of voter suppression. But it’s not yet enough.
Until Americans believe participation trumps their desires to exclude others, the democracy we seek to achieve will forever remain beyond our reach.