Talking Points

The brazen political calculus distorting our election policy debates

Voting rights vs. voting integrity has become one of the great debates dividing Washington and the country.

Both President Biden and Vice President Harris made pitches this week for Democrats' federal election overhaul bills during their speeches commemorating last year's attack on the Capitol, presenting the legislation as part of the same fight for democracy as ensuring the Electoral College certification proceeded undeterred by a riotous mob. Many Republicans, meanwhile, see these bills as part of a broader strategy to make permanent some of the changes to voting that took place amid the pandemic and to prevent state legislatures under GOP control from revisiting practices like mass mail-in voting or ballot collection by third parties. 

There's an inherent tension between ballot access and ballot security. Even simple things like requiring a voter to show ID or occasionally purging voter rolls of people who have died or moved out of state illustrate this: These policies make it more likely that only lawful voters will cast ballots, but some people who should be able to vote won't have the required identification or may be purged in error.

We don't debate this real conflict between two important goods because each party has concluded it derives an electoral advantage from choosing just one side. Democrats believe liberalizing voting laws will help them win more close elections, while Republicans believe the same about tightening these rules.

Neither party usually wants to be so crass as to say this outright, so they speak of these practical considerations in sweeping moral terms. Republicans are trying to curb voting access to keep Democratic constituencies, especially communities of color, from voting, Democrats charge. Democrats want to facilitate the commission of voter fraud, helping the dead cast ballots for their candidates in places like Chicago, Republicans counter. 

There are real-world examples of Republicans and Democrats who play to type in this morality play. And it's also the case that some voter legislation can be misguided or go too far in one direction or the other. But the argument is made uglier and less informative by one side asserting that any attempt to improve voting security is the equivalent of Jim Crow while the other maintains that the absence of such laws or enactment of any new ones expanding access will lead to Tammany Hall-level voter fraud.

Thankfully, neither argument is true. But as the midterms approach, that won't stop partisans from making them.