Voter suppression doesn’t matter if voters don’t care

Have you heard? Turnout for the November general election is expected to be so high that election officials have decided to add a second day of voting. They’re asking Democrats to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, and Republicans to vote on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

Hardy-har-har.

We’ve heard various iterations of this joke over the years. Depending on who’s telling it, sometimes the joke is on Democrats, sometimes it’s on Republicans. We’re reasonably sure we even smiled the first time. We’re quite sure we knew it wasn’t serious.

So should it be a crime? It could be under the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2018. Proponents of this proposed federal legislation — one of the bill’s sponsors is Alabama Sen. Doug Jones — likely would say that it’s not intended to apply to such instances. This latest version of a bill that has been introduced at least four other times over the last dozen years cites numerous instances of organized, intentional attempts to dissuade particular groups of voters from going to the polls by using “deceptive practices.”

The bill would make these practices illegal within 60 days of an election with a federal office on the ballot, and defines them as involving “the dissemination of false or misleading information intended to prevent voters from casting their ballots, prevent voters from voting for the candidate of their choice, intimidate the electorate, and undermine the integrity of the electoral process.”

Sounds serious, and indeed the penalties for a violation would be relatively stiff — up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. Clearly, this would stop some bad actors. But crafting a law that would fairly distinguish innocent or protected political speech from electoral sabotage is not that simple, and this one raises questions about unintended consequences.

What about someone who tells the above joke? What about a flier that shows up in mailboxes on the Saturday before an election that denigrates a candidate with ambiguous allegations? Who decides what someone’s intent was or when some “practice” rises to the level of a violation? Might an overzealous, partisan prosecutor try to make an example of someone in the hyper-polarized political environment we’re living in now? We’d rather not leave it to chance.

Anyone who meets the legal criteria for voting — and the purpose of those criteria should be to ensure free and fair elections — should not face any other impediments to casting a ballot. Lost in all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over voter suppression, however, is the notion of voter responsibility. Exercising the franchise should entail some buy-in on the part of the prospective voter, some effort to be aware of and understand election laws and current events.

Without a doubt, efforts to undermine elections are increasingly a serious concern — today’s technology makes even the most sophisticated among us susceptible to deceit. Yet we are more troubled by voter apathy than by the prospect of nefarious attempts to keep voters from the polls. When turnout for many elections falls below 50 percent of registered voters, and often is far lower for run-offs and special measures, who needs suppression?

—Tuscaloosa News, Aug. 1, 2018

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