Today in Unpersuasive Liberal Arguments

I get extremely annoyed when liberals make unpersuasive cases on issues they are correct about. Here’s an example: Voter ID laws. Liberals believe that Voter ID laws, which require voters to display photo IDs, are harmful because they disproportionately end up keeping minorities from voting. They argue that the proferred justifications for these laws (that they help to prevent fraud) are false, because there is very little evidence of the existence of the kind of fraud the laws ostensibly prevent. Thus, they reason, the laws are largely an attempt to stifle voter turnout and keep conservatives in power.

The problem I have with this form of argumentation, which focuses heavily on debunking claims of mass fraud and thus undermining the laws’ justification, is that while it may be logically sound, it’s not very compelling. Yes, it’s technically true that if someone says “We need a Voter ID law because of fraud,” and you prove that there is no fraud, the argument in favor of the law is destroyed. But a lot of people, hearing this argument, probably react in the same way that my own gut does: “Well, but even if there isn’t fraud, what’s so wrong with requiring someone to show a photo ID?” In fact, it actually seems a little bit strange that you wouldn’t have to show a photo ID when voting.

When this reply comes up, liberals have to begin a long convoluted explanation: Yes, but a lot of older black people don’t have Photo IDs, photo IDs are not as easy to get as you think, etc etc. These are correct, but they don’t sound good. It just doesn’t seem like a very important issue.

But it is an important issue, and I think liberals are failing to frame it correctly. Instead of leading with the technically true but not very powerful point that widespread fraud is a myth, opponents of Voter ID laws should be entirely emphasizing paperwork and bureaucracy.

Because the problem with Voter ID laws is really that they create bureaucratic hassle, hassle that is going to bring even more confusion and consternation into the lives of old people.

I tried to go and get my Massachusetts driver’s license recently. I waited four hours at the Boston DMV to be called to the window. When I presented all of my identification and forms, I was told that I didn’t qualify for a license. Why? Because one of the two pieces of mail I had brought to prove my residency was not on the approved list of mail-types. I had brought a letter from my bank, when all that was acceptable was a statement from my bank. If I wanted a license, I would have to come back again, with the correct form of mail, and wait another four hours. Oh, and because the drivers’ license application also includes a voter registration form, my voter registration was simultaneously denied.

This is the nature of bureaucracy; everybody has these stories, and they come from the private and public sectors alike. Whether dealing with Comcast, the Post Office, or the health insurance company, getting something out of an institution based on formalized rules and procedures (with no incentive to help you), can be an interminable nightmare.

This is why the most compelling way of opposing these laws is that adopted by the Brennan Center, in its effort to make clear just how difficult it can be to obtain an ID. People have to travel hundreds of miles to an office that is open a few days a week, and then have to present endless forms of documentation, and the documentation itself requires a photo ID to get hold of.

But even when liberals emphasize the difficulties in obtaining ID, instead of the lack of fraud, they miss a key framing opportunity in failing to emphasize words like bureaucracy and excessive regulation. These are evils people understand, but for some reason it’s conservatives that have developed a monopoly on the argument that government is an absurd Kafkaesque octopus that places impossible regulatory requirements on people then punishes them when they fail to fulfill them.

That’s a real missed opportunity. Administrative obstacles to simple things are one of the most infuriating aspects of everyday life, and requiring photo ID ends up creating exactly such an obstacle for many, many people. So forget the fact that voter fraud is a “nonexistent problem” and keep telling the absurd stories of the people who spent weeks trying to track down their original birth certificate only to be denied.

Voter registration is actually an evil in itself that makes no sense. Why should people even have to register, instead of being automatically enrolled? I’d much prefer a system in which people have to present photo ID, but don’t have to register, than the current system of registration and then no mandatory photo ID. But the framing should always remain the same: the real problem is placing additional hassle on anyone, since it’s the most creeping and infuriating aspect of contemporary life, and supposedly the thing as Americans we’re most against.