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William Murchison / October 14, 2014

When Duty Doesn’t Call

Americans will cease arguing over the federal Voting Rights Act and its intricacies – oh, I imagine around the time Texas starts exporting ground water to Minnesota, or the Lord returns to judge the quick and the dead. Mandatory voter ID laws passed by Republican legislatures in Texas, Arkansas and Wisconsin have been under legal assault by Democrats. A lower federal court order expanding statewide early voting and same-day registration in Ohio got overturned by the Supreme Court – which had before it, at the same time, an appeal from North Carolina asking affirmation of its right to eliminate same-day registration and voting, along with out-of-precinct voting.

Americans will cease arguing over the federal Voting Rights Act and its intricacies – oh, I imagine around the time Texas starts exporting ground water to Minnesota, or the Lord returns to judge the quick and the dead.

Mandatory voter ID laws passed by Republican legislatures in Texas, Arkansas and Wisconsin have been under legal assault by Democrats. A lower federal court order expanding statewide early voting and same-day registration in Ohio got overturned by the Supreme Court – which had before it, at the same time, an appeal from North Carolina asking affirmation of its right to eliminate same-day registration and voting, along with out-of-precinct voting.

Democrats see in these various state laws an evil Republican attempt to suppress voting by minority group members likely to – duh – vote Democratic. Requirements to present photographic identification draw particular scorn. Republicans say all they want to do is make sure voting procedures are honest and reflective of actual popular will.

The point commonly buried in these slanging matches over intent and results is a point little attended to in our current ideological wars. I would call that point the need for rekindled earnestness regarding the duties that come, or ought to, with exercise of the franchise.

Human nature being what it is, and the stakes in political success being presently so high, we are entitled to suppose that civics-book elections take place only now and then. That would seem to put the burden of proof on opponents of electoral changes meant to foster a certain seriousness about the duty of voting. Why make voting as easy as falling off a log – and as challenging? Why not make it more of a deliberative enterprise, accompanied by meditation and even a measure of sacrifice?

What’s wrong with some reasonable – non-discriminatory, may it please the court – measures meant to encourage turnout chiefly by those who exert themselves when turning out? What is the matter with some minimal formality, such as producing on demand a photo that verifies identity? The Texas photo ID law rebuked by an Obama-appointed federal judge as “an unconstitutional poll tax” permits the tendering of ID in various forms, including a citizenship certificate, a military ID card and a concealed handgun license. That hardly strikes me (though I am not a federal judge) as troublesome or vexatious.

The question of how much fraud a voter ID law suppresses yields in urgency to the question: What’s the big deal here? Isn’t voting a large enough responsibility that lawmakers are entitled to frame its operation with very minor requirements? In truth, a 21st-century voter need not even speak the language of the country – English – whose franchise he proposes to exercise. If he speaks another tongue, the state will provide a translator. Such a deal! Just show up and the authorities fall all over themselves to assist.

I know it to be unfashionable, in an age decoupled from notions of personal responsibility, to expect of any American much in the way of civic exertion. Might not this help to explain our growing alienation from public duties? The amount of effort and devotion we put into anything generally helps determine how much we get out of it – a lot or a little. Should government take itself more seriously than do the voters, popping in on Election Day for a quick temperature check: no muss, no fuss, no bother?

The franchise, since the day of the founding fathers, has been made about as open and easy as humanly possible. Maybe too open, too easy. The notion of duty, certainly of sacrifice when called for, seems gone from the whole enterprise. We’re here because we’re here because we’re here … not on account of the hopes that earlier generations saw as bound up with the right to freely choose our political leaders. Why election days at all? Why not just telephone surveys? Or would picking up the phone impose unfairly on a voter who can’t be bothered, photographically, to show his face at the polls?

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