Chuck Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College and is a senior fellow at Center of the American Experiment, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, public policy and educational institution that brings conservative and free market ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation." This article is part of a package on the center's website addressing the voter ID amendment on the ballot this fall.
This photo ID-to-vote issue has me confused. Shouldn't the two sides be reversed?
After all, there was a time when the "good government" types were the progressives. And what could be more consistent with good government progressivism than assuring an honest vote? There was also a time when conservative types would have been horrified at the prospect of having to produce state-issued documentation to authenticate that its possessor is who he or she claims to be. Doesn't such a prospect smack of the entering wedge for a Soviet-style internal passport?
To be sure, not all conservatives are of the libertarian variety. And the number of folks, conservative or otherwise, who recall the bad old days of the Soviet Union is dwindling by the day. Still, it's axiomatic that one of the hallmarks of the political right is a suspicion of the state. And what could be more suspicion-inducing than a seemingly innocent requirement that would-be voters produce a photo ID?
Where might this lead? Why, to a national ID, of course, or the sort of ID that a federal government could use for any number of nefarious purposes. Or so conservatives might be suggesting, if not shouting. But they aren't.
Progressives, on the other hand, might be trying to calm their conservative brethren down. They might be reminding paranoid conservative ideologues of just what is at stake here, namely the honesty and trustworthiness of our electoral process. But they aren't.
It really is very confusing, not to mention upside down. Why aren't progressives insisting that nothing should trump making sure that our elections are as fair and honest as they can possibly be? And why aren't conservatives worried about the Big Brother temptations inherent in all of this?
Today's progressives like to claim that whatever they propose — or oppose — is somehow consistent with a century of progressive reform. They insist that their positions and reform proposals are either consistent with or the culmination of every such initiative from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on.
Well, one of the major thrusts of the original progressive movement was to bring more honesty and openness to our electoral system. If the parties and their machines were corrupt or unresponsive, the progressive answer was the primary election. If elected officials were in the way or otherwise obstructionist, the progressive solution was to bypass them with the initiative and the referendum. And if individual politicians were, heaven forbid, personally corrupt, let the voters recall them. Finally, if state legislators could be bought by wealthy candidates for the U.S. Senate, progressives ended that sort of selling and buying with the 17th Amendment and the direct election of senators.
To be sure, expanding the vote was also a progressive idea. Witness the 19th Amendment and the extension of the suffrage to women. But more often than not, the same progressives who favored the vote for women were silent at best while the vote was being taken away from black men.
In any case, the general thrust of all these progressive-era reforms was to ensure that our elections would be as transparent and honest as possible. Isn't that the very spirit that animates the efforts of photo ID proponents?
After all, the potential for fraud is obvious under the current system of "vouching" for the identity of would-be voters. It's one thing to extend the vote to those previously disenfranchised; it's quite another thing to extend the vote to those who may already have voted, to those ineligible to vote, or to those who aren't who the voucher insists they are.
Opponents of the photo-ID ballot initiative condemn it as "voter suppression." There is a major note of irony here, given their progressive forbears' reprehensible stand on — or at best indifference to — the stripping of the vote from black men. The irony in all of this gets even better when we consider that photo ID advocates have been accused of racism. It's as though they are proposing that only certain groups produce a photo ID.
This would be akin to progressive-era efforts to remove black men from the voting rolls and reinforce Jim Crowism generally. Amazingly enough, in the election of 1912 some progressives, Woodrow Wilson among them, actually favored doing just that, while others, TR among them, remained essentially silent in the face of such actions.
History aside, the current conundrum remains a conundrum. Or does it? Just why are conservatives so willing to accept a statist solution/intrusion in this instance? And why are progressives so eager to defeat what can readily be defined as a "good government" reform?
Might the answer to both questions be the same? Might both sides know that the photo ID requirement would be an effective answer to what at least one side deems to be a real problem?
Progressives, of course, deny that such a problem exists. But how can they be so sure? And in any case, wouldn't the truly progressive approach to this matter be figuring out the best way of getting a photo ID into the hands of every last legitimately eligible voter who doesn't have one?
The photo ID solution won't please everybody. But if such a requirement is enacted, the unhappy campers will be limited to three small groups: the truly doctrinaire libertarians, the few who really don't care about good government, and anyone who thinks that the status quo is just fine and claims to know what cannot be known under our current rules — namely, that the status quo actually is just fine.