I try hard to see both sides to every situation (l’avocat du diable, remember?), but in the case of North Carolina governor Pat McCrory’s recent leadership of a right-wing takeover of the North Carolina state legislature, I’m not quite sure I’m up to the task.
On education: McCrory has backed a $135m cut to the UNC system. When asked why, he said, “We have a choice. We can keep doing it the same way with the same results or we can change and think out of the box.” Hm. Besides the fact that this is a non-answer to the question . . . I think the results of NC’s investment in higher education have been pretty good–world-class university system, good environment for research business . . . (And while we’re on the subject of education, maybe I should mention his blood-boiling comments on liberal arts education this last winter or his continuing low pay for public school teachers–see this open letter from an elementary school teacher that’s been circulating recently, and this marvelous piece of sarcasm about McCrory’s “changing position” on the liberal arts.)
On voter identification: He has signed one of the tightest sets of restrictions on voting in the country to “combat voter fraud.” What evidence is there of voter fraud in NC? “Well the fact of the matter is we aren’t looking for voter fraud.” Oh. Well I think you better start looking, and I sure hope you find some, because otherwise it might look like you’re just trying to prevent poor people, people of color, and young people from voting against you.
I could go on: his expansion of gun rights, his restrictions of women’s rights, his shifting of tax burdens from the wealthy to the poor, his appointment of Art Pope, a big-bucks donator to his campaign some liken to the Koch brothers, as his Budget Director, a victimization complex regarding all the “extreme-left” attacks on his administration, the blood of the innocent he sprinkles on his cornflakes every morning . . .
You see how easy it is to get all hot and bothered. When I set out to write this post, I vowed I would try to see McCrory’s policy decisions from his perspective. I would go to his website, listen to interviews with him, try to pretend I was a life-long Republican crying “Amen.” This is a blog about perception, for crying out loud! I know how easy it is for my liberal leanings to influence my perception of this conservative governor. I wanted to perceive his work as he wanted me to. And I did, for about five minutes.
As an example, let’s focus on the interview I quoted above on voter identification. When he says that we’re not looking for voter fraud, he means to point out an egregious mistake. We should be looking for voter fraud, he’s saying, because “if we’re naïve enough to think that there’s not voter fraud in the 10th largest state in the United States of America, then I think we’ve got our head in the sand.” Okay, I agree that people shouldn’t be allowed to vote more than once. I’m with you there.
But let’s look at some of the other assumptions behind McCrory’s rhetorical position in just those few sentences.
- First assumption: people will commit fraud if you don’t watch them like a hawk.
Certainly there are cases in which this is true. There are also cases in which it is less true, so I don’t think it’s the best data to build important, restrictive legislation on. Surely actual data would be more useful. According to McCrory, we don’t have that data, because we “aren’t looking for voter fraud.” But here is the summary of findings and conclusions from a 2012 Department of Justice study by Lorraine C. Minnite:
Based on findings from my research on voter fraud in contemporary U.S. elections, I conclude that “stringent” photo identification requirements to vote are not justified by claims that such requirements are needed to reduce or prevent voter impersonation forms of election fraud because as the empirical record makes clear, fraud committed by voters either in registering to vote or at the polls on Election Day is already exceedingly rare. For example, national data on illegal registration and voting in the 2002 midterm and 2004 presidential elections in which a total of more than 197 million votes were cast show that the percentage of illegal votes was statistically zero. Of the twenty-six persons convicted by the federal government between 2002 and 2005 of illegal registration or of casting illegal ballots, there was no evidence that any of them impersonated other or fictitious voters.
- Related assumption: the more people there are in the state (after all, NC is the 10th largest state!), the higher the likelihood of fraud.
Well, if you compare the (alleged) proportion of voter fraud in NC, which has a higher population than Idaho, to the same proportion of fraud in Idaho, then yes, there will be more cases of fraud in NC than in Idaho. But there is no evidence to suggest a higher population leads to a higher proportion of voter fraud. And proportion is the one that counts (that’s kind of how voting works). The size of the state is completely irrelevant to McCrory’s point; he’s just trying to make his state sound important. This is the kind of sound-bite insertion all politicians do, and it’s annoying, but since everyone does it, I’ll give him a pass.
- Related assumption: his audience really doesn’t want to be thought of as naïve.
This, I think, is the kernel. The Republican ethos says, “I’m self-made and self-sufficient,” “You can’t get one over on me,” and “I know what I know, and I won’t have outsider elites telling me how things are.” Lots of defenders of anti-voter fraud legislation say requiring id is “common sense,” and that it’s not about statistics (read: the educated elite can’t tell me what is necessary). This self-reliant ethos is not entirely bad–there’s a time and place for it. But in this case, I think it’s skewing Republican policy in a direction that’s ultimately bad for our democracy.
That down-to-earth ethos is not the only thing that’s interfering with Republicans’ perception of the issues. We also have to consider the very real gains Republicans stand to win from restricting the voting opportunities of populations who historically vote Democrat. I don’t mean to suggest that NC’s voting rights act is entirely, consciously motivated by the desire for political advancement. I don’t want to imply that all Republicans have been sitting in a smoke-filled room rubbing their hands and saying, “Now, how can we get Democrats barred from voting?” Or worse yet, “Things were so much better in the good old Jim Crow days, when African American citizens couldn’t turn up in droves to vote against us. Now that the Supreme Court has denied the necessity for voter protection in the South, we can go back to those days! Thank God!” But even if Republicans aren’t all scheming like this consciously, I have no doubt that the fact that their party stands to gain by the new law has influenced their perception of the situation. The drive for gain, even if unconscious, gives arguments for their own side more weight, and suddenly “we have to prevent people from cheating our democracy” becomes an unassailable common-sense principle. Then claims that nobody was cheating in the first place become quite beside the point.
In the end, my effort to see McCrory’s point of view has not made me more sympathetic to his cause. It has confirmed my inclination to see the new voter identification law as a bad idea, so in a sense I failed. But my exercise was still useful, I think. Even if it confirmed my previously held opinion, it transformed that opinion from a knee-jerk reaction to a considered position. Now if only McCrory would do the same thing. And come to the same conclusion.