There is a voter fraud problem in the United States. Some people are voting who shouldn’t be voting, it’s illegal, and this illegality, should it become pervasive, could undermine the fundamental mechanism of democracy in our fair land. This is the problem of voter fraud.
I’m tempted to hedge this entire line of reasoning by placing “it is alleged” or “so they say” against it because I’m deeply suspicious of the way this argument is deployed in contemporary American politics (more on that next). However, I think it’s important to begin by acknowledging the kernel of truth in it—there are real goods that are undermined when fraud is committed, I do believe that voting is a political good (albeit a limited one, more on this further below) and that casting votes illegally jeopardizes the processes put into place to guarantee fair elections.
But, as I’ve just intimated, I think there’s a problem with the problem of voter fraud. The second problem comes into view when it’s recognized that the solution being proposed to the first problem doesn’t match the size of the problem. While there is voter fraud, the problem is quite small and no real threat to representative democracy in America. The solution, on the other hand, is sweeping—usually some form of mandatory voter ID law that would likely disenfranchise far more legitimate voters than are currently defrauding the system by voting illegally. We might call this disenfranchisement the secondary effect of the allegedly primary intent of rooting out voter fraud. And we could thus think of the disenfranchisement as “collateral damage” in the war against voter fraud. Yet the mismatch between magnitude of solution and problem suggests that the secondary effect—disenfranchisement—is actually the primary intent of the solution. The war on voter fraud, upon further investigation, looks like a war on those marginal citizens who tend to vote the wrong way from the perspective of those concerned about voter fraud. I say “marginal citizens” because the ID requirements being promoted in the war on voter fraud are not draconian—most people can satisfy them. However, those legitimate citizens who cannot or do not satisfy them tend to be the poor, the weak, the non-native-English-speaking citizens, and the elderly. (I was intrigued to find this article on a “Fox News Latino” site, from just last week, that leads with this line: “Thousands of votes could be in jeopardy this November as more states with larger populations look to have tough voter ID rules in place that, opponents say, could reject more legitimate voters than fraudulent ones.” Perhaps the writing is on the wall that pandering to the usual Fox News base is a recipe for long-term business decline in a nation becoming increasingly Latino.)
The politics of the discourse of “voter fraud” do not surprise me. The word itself, “fraud,” seems perfectly designed to pull on the heart strings of a particular bloc of American voters already convinced that their political opponents are not only wrong about policy but illegitimately in power in the first place. The “birther” attacks on Obama are exhibit A in this delegitimizing strategy. The problem with the problem of voter fraud is, in short, that it constitutes exhibit B.
But I think there’s finally a problem with the problem with the problem of voter fraud, and that’s really the point of this post. The problem with the problem with the problem is that getting too caught up in this embittered battle over voting only reinforces an idolatry at the heart of American political practice. Voting in our country is not only viewed pragmatically as a political mechanism of significant but limited utility that can at times, and perhaps even much or most of the time, be used by citizens as a means of limited access to and participation in the powers of the nation-state in which we reside. Voting is not acknowledged and celebrated as a limited but useful tool for democratic feedback to the oligarchs who are actually running the show (our current contest is just the latest battle between multimillionaires, after all). No, voting in America is quasi-sacramental. It is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual commitment to the entire American project. To vote is to be a believer in America. To not vote is to be an unbeliever—it is to be nothing less than un-American.
It is in this context that it might just be the most faithful thing to do as a Christian not to vote. To not vote will not solve the real problem of voter fraud (I accept that there is a problem, though it’s quite small and people are already on it); nor will it deal with the problem with the problem of voter fraud (a bigger problem than the first, to be sure, but again, many people are on to the fact that the “collateral damage” of voter fraud laws are actually the primary intent). However, not voting might just be a uniquely effective way that Christians in America can signal to our fellow citizens that the limited goods of secular political orders have become idols when they present themselves as sacramental absolutes. If voting is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual faith in “America,” Christians certainly need to find some way to own up to their unbelief.
(There are many strong objections to not voting, many of which I respect but cannot address here. For a fine collection of essays by an ecumenical group of Christians that begin to address them, see Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis.)