"Disenfranchised"? When Words Lose Meaning

On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona's new voter ID laws -- requiring photo IDs and proof of citizenshiop -- will remain in place for the November 7 elections. Although the Supremes took no position on the legal issues that will ultimately determine whether Arizona's law is constitutional, they overturnied an injunction issued by a lower court that would have suspended the law for the current election. So to vote in Arizona on November 7, you better have your papers and photos in order.

Arizona's Proposition 200, of course, is one of many new Republican-sponsored state laws designed to stiffen the ID requirements for voting. (The House of Representatives also passed a similar, federal law.) The rationale for such laws is that they are needed to prevent fraud -- although almost nowhere have the laws' sponsors been able to document the existence of significant fraud occurring because non-legal voters have pretended to be, or impersonated, legal voters. (A Minnesota study found that there were 32 non-citizens registered to vote, out of more than 3 million.) Critics of the laws have claimed that they are partisan efforts designed to suppress the votes of poor, young, and minority voters who are least likely to possess drivers' licenses or other required documents.

There is a trade-off here -- as there always is with procedural laws governing elections. A trade-off between ballot access and ballot security, between preventing fraud and preventing legitimate voters from casting their ballots.

Keeping legal voters from registering or voting has a name in American politics: disenfranchisement. It is a practice and a word with a long history, much of it ugly and tied to patterns of racism and ethnic discrimination. "Disenfranchisement" is a word that, in post 1960s America, carries some serious moral freight: no politician or pundit is going to speak out in favor of "disenfranchisement." Not overtly at least.

Which is why it is both interesting and disturbing that advocates of the new voter ID laws have begun to borrow the word "disenfranchisement" and deform its meaning. Again and again, defenders of these laws have claimed that legitimate voters would be "disenfranchised" if illegal voters were able to cast ballots. Disenfranchised? How so? If huge numbers of imposters voted and illegally changed the outcome of an election, legitimate voters would have been cheated, but not disenfranchised. The election would have been stolen, but no one would have lost their right to vote.

What's happening here is an effort to give strict (and perhaps unnecessarily strict) procedural regulations the same moral authority as laws -- such as the Voting Rights Act -- that support a fundamental democratic value: the right to vote. It's a clever rhetorical move -- and one that should make our democratic alarm bells go off.

Remarkably, the Supreme Court bought into the shift in language-- and even took it a step further. In its unsigned opinion, the court justified its decision by claiming that "voters who fear their legitimate votes will be outweighted by fraudulent ones will feel disenfranchised." FEEL disenfranchised? Is that the same as "being disenfranchised"? So if I might "feel" disenfranchised, I have a right to make it harder for you to vote? What on earth is going on here?