My big­gest dis­ap­point­ments in politics

Kent County News - - OPINION - LEE HAMIL­TON

The other day, a friend asked what sur­prised me most about politics. This may seem strange, but I’d never re­ally thought about the ques­tion.

My re­sponse was off-the-cuff but heart­felt. The big­gest sur­prise is also among my big­gest dis­ap­point­ments with Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life: the ongoing ef­fort by politi­cians to sup­press votes.

Yes it’s gone on for years. And in some re­spects, lim­it­ing the vote has been a fea­ture of Amer­i­can politics since the be­gin­ning, when only white men with prop­erty could cast bal­lots. But when I be­gan in politics, I as­sumed those days were past us, and ev­ery­one was on board with the idea that the more peo­ple who vote, the bet­ter. Boy, was I naïve.

The truth is, peo­ple work hard to pre­vent other peo­ple from vot­ing. To be sure, some vot­ers do it to them­selves — they’re too busy or they think their vote doesn’t mat­ter or they en­counter long lines and turn away.

But there also is an ac­tive, ongoing ef­fort to keep peo­ple — of­ten mi­nor­ity or poor vot­ers — from cast­ing their bal­lots. How do politi­cians ac­com­plish this? Here’s a short, and incomplete, list:

• They re­quire voter IDs — and then limit which IDs are valid (a gun per­mit is fine, for in­stance, but not a stu­dent ID);

• They close polling places — usu­ally (you guessed it) in poor and mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties;

• They limit the hours polls are open;

• They con­duct sweep­ing purges of voter rolls, of­ten strip­ping vot­ers of their abil­ity to vote with­out their knowl­edge;

• They re­strict el­i­gi­bil­ity for ab­sen­tee bal­lots;

• They refuse to in­vest in the in­fra­struc­ture that sus­tains vot­ing, re­sult­ing in ma­chines that break down and long lines that dis­cour­age po­ten­tial vot­ers.

The peo­ple who op­pose mak­ing it eas­ier to vote of­ten cite as their rea­son that they’re try­ing to pre­vent voter fraud. In other words, they’re de­fend­ing the in­tegrity of our democ­racy and of the bal­lot.

But here’s the thing: There is oc­ca­sional voter

fraud, and yes, it needs to be guarded against. But ram­pant voter fraud sim­ply doesn’t ex­ist in this coun­try. Ef­forts to prove that it ex­ists have failed.

Let’s be blunt: There’s no tidal wave of il­le­gal vot­ing in the U.S.

What does inar­guably ex­ist, though, is an epi­demic of ef­forts to sup­press the vote. Vot­ing is a ba­sic right of cit­i­zen­ship. It’s the foun­da­tion of a democ­racy — peo­ple’s abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate and engage with the is­sues fac­ing their com­mu­ni­ties and their coun­try.

That ideal lies at the core of Amer­i­can val­ues, and I’m al­ways mind­ful of the fact that a lot of Amer­i­cans gave their lives for that ideal. More­over, ex­clud­ing groups of vot­ers en­cour­ages re­sent­ment, risk­ing protests and po­ten­tially vi­o­lence.

I’ve al­ways be­lieved that you win power by con­vinc­ing peo­ple that your ideas and pro­pos­als are right — or at least that you should be given the chance to prove that they’re right. Win­ning power by keep­ing peo­ple away from the polls is a per­ver­sion of what democ­racy is about. Our po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions need to re­flect the will of the peo­ple, and if you dis­en­fran­chise

peo­ple, it means that our rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment doesn’t re­flect ac­cu­rately the will of the peo­ple.

Be­cause vot­ing laws are in the hands of the states, there are plenty of coun­terex­am­ples — states that have worked to make vot­ing eas­ier, to ex­pand hours, to al­low same-day reg­is­tra­tion and the like. There’s more to be done, es­pe­cially mak­ing sure that the politi­cians who con­trol elec­tions aren’t them­selves run­ning for of­fice, as hap­pened no­tably in Novem­ber’s elec­tions in Georgia and Kansas. That is a con­flict of in­ter­est of the most ob­vi­ous sort.

This strug­gle, between expanding the vote and try­ing to limit it, is ongoing.

It’s not go­ing to be re­solved any time soon. I’m al­ways dis­tressed when I en­counter ef­forts to sup­press the vote. But I take heart from the fact that over the course of Amer­i­can his­tory, the dom­i­nant trend has been to ex­pand cit­i­zens’ ac­cess to the polls, and I hope that over the long term, we con­tinue in that di­rec­tion.

Lee Hamil­ton is a se­nior ad­vi­sor for the In­di­ana Univer­sity Cen­ter on Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Govern­ment; a Dis­tin­guished Scholar, IU School of Global and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies; and a Pro­fes­sor of Prac­tice, IU School of Pub­lic and En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs. He was a mem­ber of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for 34 years.

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