Voter participation is a civics book virtue that would seem to be an unquestioned good. But to those in the trenches of our political wars, greater participation can be either a plus or a minus.
In a political campaign, the aim of candidates is not so much to get everyone to the polls but to get one’s own supporters to the polls. The battle becomes anti-democratic when one side works to suppress the vote. This has been a Republican tactic in numerous states where legislatures have passed new voter ID laws to place hurdles in the way of poor or minority voters.
In Vermont the problem is not voter suppression. Rather, politicians are tripping over themselves to encourage voter turnout, especially T.J. Donovan, who is challenging Attorney General William Sorrell in the Democratic primary.
It works like this: voters receive a call asking if they know whether they will vote for Donovan or Sorrell. If the answer is Donovan, the Donovan campaign worker on the other end of the line asks if the voter would like the campaign to request an absentee ballot for the voter. Then the ballot will show up in the voter’s mail box, sent by the town clerk.
This practice came to light when a problem arose in Brattleboro. There, a Sorrell supporter received a phone call from the town clerk asking if she truly meant to request an absentee ballot. (The clerk knew the voter usually came to the polls on Election Day.) The voter said no.
It turned out the Donovan campaign had mistakenly requested an absentee ballot on behalf of the voter, raising the concern of the voter who knew that if the ballot had shown up, she could easily have tossed it into the trash with the junk mail. Donovan’s campaign expressed regret for the mistake but not for the practice of requesting absentee ballots for voters, which is allowed by election law.
If the process of requesting absentee ballots becomes too erratic, it would provide ammunition for Republicans who claim they have mounted voter suppression efforts to combat election fraud. Till now there have been virtually no election fraud cases to justify the efforts by Republicans to make voting more difficult. But Vermont would do well to consider whether they want third parties requesting absentee ballots. The daughter of an elderly mother in a nursing home can just as easily help the parent file the request for a ballot as they can help her send in a ballot. Sorrell’s campaign sends voters’ requests for ballots instead of having clerks send actual ballots.
Meanwhile, Republican politicians have admitted that their voter suppression efforts are intended to win the election for Mitt Romney. A leading Republican in Pennsylvania bragged: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania? Done.”
A Florida politician admitted in a deposition that the party had been discussing “voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.”
A Maryland Republican (since convicted of election fraud) sought to “promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African-American Democrats,” according to a consultant’s memo.
There were incidents during the presidential campaign of 2004 when Florida state police showed up at the homes of African-American voters to discourage them from voting.
We have a history of preserving privilege by preventing one group or another from voting. It is an anti-democratic and elitist approach to governance. A fairer result occurs when the most people participate and render a verdict. Encouraging voter turnout ought to be a nonpartisan civic goal, even if it favors Democrats. It follows that if more people favor Democrats and Democratic positions, then that is how the election should go.
It is a reflection of weakness by Republicans that they believe they must suppress the vote to win. It is a reflection of aggressive politicking that Donovan feels compelled to pepper town clerk offices with requests for ballots on behalf of voters.
The important thing is for people to take charge of their civic responsibility and to get their hands on a ballot, one way or another, and to make their preferences known.MORE IN Editorials
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