It isn't what we don't know that causes us grief, but what we know, that simply isn't true.
That is a drearily recurring theme here, but there is no better illustration of the maxim than the voter-suppression drive in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South. It has spread outside the South to a few Midwestern states where Republicans control the legislatures.
In the old days, sometimes known as the good old days, it was the Democratic Party that engaged in voter suppression, but demography and a changed political culture have switched the party roles.
What we know that isn't so is that dishonest voters — by the tens of thousands here in Arkansas and by the millions nationally — are going to the polls in every election and illegally casting other people's ballots for them, in favor of people like Barack Obama and liberal Democrats.
Both recent experience and the state's long and sad history of elections show that it simply isn't so, but it is the basis of the voter-identification law that Arkansas begins enforcing at some expense this winter and of other, far more draconian laws in other states that seek to dampen voting by minorities, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.
Much of the impetus for the Arkansas law came from legislators in Northwest Arkansas, where Republicans fear that Hispanics working in the poultry and service industries might be registering and voting before getting citizenship and that they might vote for Democrats. Republicans hope the photo ID might somehow deter them.
The Arkansas law will soon be challenged in court and almost certainly will be struck down, perhaps before it deprives too many people of their right to vote. The Arkansas Constitution makes it clear that the legislature cannot add requirements for voting beyond a person's permanent registration.
People in Arkansas were easy to persuade that the photo-ID law was necessary to protect the sanctity of elections because we have a long history of election fraud dating back to statehood and particularly since Reconstruction, when whites and the Democratic Party wrested power from Republicans and their freshly minted African-American voting allies. The state effectively removed the franchise from blacks through a variety of ruses — intimidation, whites-only primaries, the poll tax and the Australian ballot. It would be well after World War II that blacks began to have a token role in elections and the casting of public policy.
Today, the African-American share of the popular vote is considerably less than its share of the population, about 15 percent. Poor people just do not vote in large numbers. Arkansas has one of the weakest democracies of all the states. Only 50.5 percent of Arkansas adults who were eligible to be voters cast a ballot in 2012, far below the national average and better than only four states, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Hawaii. The legislature this spring thought it could get the number even lower so it passed the law requiring people to flash an official photo identification before voting. Large numbers of the poor do not have an official photo ID and will have to go to considerable trouble to get one.
Only a few Republican leaders admit that the purpose of the new voting laws — in some states they are shortening voting periods to make it harder for working people to cast their votes — is to suppress votes. The generic explanation is that it is to stop fraud.
But the ID laws won't have any effect on any form of election fraud that we have known in this or any other state. Voting fraud is almost never committed by random individuals going to the polls to cast someone else's vote for them, which is what the ID law might deter. Fraud is committed not by voters but by those conducting elections — sheriffs and county clerks — with the complicity of precinct judges and clerks, most often through the manipulation of absentee ballots. Even that is not much in evidence anymore but it can happen—and still could with photo IDs.
Florida, where vote suppression decided the 2000 presidential election, and its sister states on the seaboard, particularly North Carolina, have taken more draconian steps to curtail voting by blacks and Hispanics, after they were given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Voting Rights Act decision. Florida's governor, Rick Scott, said noncitizens were voting illegally in huge numbers. Republicans produced a pool of 182,000 names of voting noncitizens. It was winnowed down to 2,600 names, which were sent to election supervisors, who found that all but 198 were eligible to vote. Fewer than 40 had voted illegally. A photo ID wouldn't have stopped them.