On Voter ID and Public Opinion

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Many Republicans, and even some others (such as Mr. Burka) have complained that Democrats are acting feisty on the wrong side of public opinion.  But this is not a really good argument against Democrats for two different reasons.  First, there is no very good way to know public opinion on the issue right now.  Second, American tradition is not to listen to public opinion regarding the efficacy of democracy.

First Point: There is no very good way to know public opinion of the Voter ID issue right now.  Proponents of Voter Suppression who point to public opinion point to the February-March poll by the University of Texas's Texas Politics Series, which found significant support for “voters should be required to present a government-issued photo id at the polls before they can be allowed to vote.”  The problem is, they don't really know about the issue.  As Katherine pointed out yesterday, “we already have voter identification,” it simply is not a strict photo identification.  And many voters do not know that.  When asked about their knowledge of the law in the same poll, 42% incorrectly stated that there is already Voter ID law and another 9% were not confident enough to answer.  That's a majority of Texans who do not understand the issue!

In the Spring of 2008, I took a Public Opinion class at the University of Texas by Daron Shaw, someone I consider to be a very knowledgeable pollster.  (Oh, Fox News thinks he is good, too.)  He taught that polls are not necessarily a reliable barometer for public opinion if the voters were not knowledgeable on the topic.  To quote from my notes: “Shaw thinks that if it something people haven't really thought about and cared about, than there really is no public opinion that is valid on it.”

This is one reason that Democrats are not falling line and file behind the February-March poll.  The only voters who have really “thought and cared about” Voter ID are a small amount of very politically active Republicans and Democrats.  The majority of voters, who are not very politically active, have not thought much on the issue.

But there is a second point, too: Even if public opinion is clearly against Democrats, public opinion is not a judge of the efficacy of democracy.  This is why the founding fathers sat in a room and discussed the Constitution alone, and then they made the Bill of Rights.  True, state legislatures had to accept the Constitution, but it was not put to a referendum!  If public opinion was followed when making decisions about Democracy, the Civil Rights Era would be nothing more than a footnote in our textbooks — there would be no major Civil Rights Act!

The Democratic Party is the party that championed the Civil Rights Act under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and we will continue to support civil rights whether or not public opinion “agrees” with us.  The reason for this is because civil rights — specifically VOTING rights — are not up for a vote.

So, to recap.  We cannot really trust any polls on Voter ID because there is no thoughtful and informed public opinion on the issue.  Even if there was, this is a voting rights issue; and voting rights are not up for vote.


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  1. another point about public opinion
    As a matter of electoral politics, not even a handful of voters rate Voter ID as a high priority issue – the kind of issue that decides how they will vote. But for the R primary voters, who rate illegal immigration as the most important issue, Voter ID is a cue for blaming immigrants for every problem instead of failed Republican policy. And that's how they use the issue. That said, we can not afford to compromise the right to vote in the face of a campaign based on fear.

    • This is the most important point. Thanks Ed.
      I think this is the single most important point. Polls will show significant majorities favor a lot of things (e.g., world peace, puppies, and long walks on the beach) but until you ask them about their priorities, one has no idea of the weight of the opinion.

    • right
      And it's something we've pointed out many times before.  That is, Voters care more about the insurance and unemployment legislation that is being held up.

      And also, if voter ID was a priority, than my first point would not work — because to be a priority, the voters have to be informed.

      • This is a little different…
        Yes you did mention it. But I don't think the priority of voter id should be measured in comparison to other legislation. If we did all bills in order of priority, no local bills would ever pass.

        I think it is more compelling to dismiss this claim for failing to qualify the 80% favorable rating by its importance–and to your point–awareness by the voters. Most polls ask open ended questions of what are the most important things the legislature should do. Voter ID does not make the top 10. Maybe not the top 20.

  2. cringes
    Michael, honey, I agree with you, but please don't ever again cite a college class you took to support your views. We're in grown-up land here.

    • haha
      I guess that really isn't done often, and to tell you the truth I've never really known why besides that it can seen “tacky.”  But what other point of college classes than to learn hard facts and insight that can be applied elsewhere?

      I feel it's interesting that one shouldn't take the words of a well credentialed professor in a class lecture and instead need to find an academic paper or a book or something.  Is there really that much of a difference?

      But I guess I can avoid being tacky.

    • Huh?
      What's wrong w/ citing a college course?

      As Democrats one of our biggest priorities is affordable access to quality educations.  Is the quest of college to obtain knowledge and help apply it to our daily lives or is it merely something used to obtain a better job?

      Like Mr. Hurta, I've spent $10,000 a year on tuition alone for to obtain my degree from a first-class institution.  If I learned something relevant from a renowned professor that I can use to back up my point, I'm going to use it!

  3. Sounds familiar
    Polls showed invading Iraq was a popular option to deal with the Iraqi nuclear threat.  Polls show Voter ID is a popular option for dealing with the illegal alien voting threat.

    Do polls still show support for invading Iraq?

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