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Pyle: No prior restraint on the right to vote

Published May 9, 2014 3:44 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The following is a seriously condensed version of a speech delivered Friday to the annual convention of the Utah League of Women Voters:

In the year 2008, a Kenyan socialist with a funny name went and got himself elected president of the United States. He did that by winning the votes of a lot of folks who hadn't always bothered to vote before, or were too young to have voted in previous elections.

In 2012, the same fellow went and did it again. It was a little more difficult this time, in part because this chosen one hadn't managed to fix all the problems, new and inherited, that were still pestering the electorate. And in part because the idea of voting in a youngish black man was no longer such a pleasant novelty that it alone served to energize the mostly young, female and minority voters who had turned the previous election in his favor.

But, as before, Barack Obama and his crack team of Internet and social media Jedi made the most of the voter support they did have.

(Why those same people weren't called upon to set up the Obamacare websites is a puzzle. Probably something to do with federal procurement laws that don't allow federal agencies to just call up a super-geek pal and get something amazing fired up on short order.)

The Mitt Romney campaign supposedly had a similar voter targeting and motivation operation. But it wasn't turned on until Election Day, which was months too late. And, even then, it didn't work.

Which left Utah native Karl Rove to sit in from of the Fox News cameras on Election Night and melt down into a slag heap of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. And poor Mitt and Ann, trapped for months in that same right-wing echo chamber, were left to gracefully handle the acceptance part.

Even before that, though, there were many Republicans who had figured out that a voter-turnout machine, even if it worked, wouldn't work. Not for a party trying to swim upstream against national demographic trends that are inexorably leaving their base — angry white males and their long-suffering wives — in the minority.

Not only are more blacks and Hispanics voting, so are more single women. And more women are remaining single longer, either because they have a good education and are building careers, or because they don't have a good education but are still smart enough to realize that most of their marriage prospects would just be another whiney mouth to feed.

So, instead of motivating their voters, more and more Republicans have turned their attention to discouraging the other party's voters.

They've imposed stricter requirements for registering to vote, or for producing the kind of government-issued photo ID that poor people, young people and retired people are the least likely to have.

One of those voter ID laws, passed in Wisconsin, was smashed on the rocks recently by a federal judge who, after hearing from a roomful of expert witnesses on both sides, concluded that the voter impersonation plague that the law was supposed to address simply does not exist.

In order to do what the Wisconsin Legislature and governor said they were trying to prevent, an unauthorized voter would have to show up at a polling place, give the full name and address of someone who was registered to vote there, but who hadn't already voted, forge that person's signature in the poll book and hope that nobody there would know they were not that person.

All of which was already illegal as hell. And all of which violates the undocumented alien's prime directive: Don't call attention to yourself, especially with any government agency.But, then, voter suppression laws don't necessarily have to exist either, in order to work.

In Pennsylvania, a voter ID law that Republicans openly bragged would make that state winnable for Romney in 2012 was also blocked by a judge. But there was enough publicity about the law's requirements that some estimated as many as 35,000 eligible voters didn't bother that year.

Romney still lost Pennsylvania. But by half the margin that John McCain had lost it the election before.

Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, meanwhile, are moving to walk back other things designed to increase voter turnout. They are cutting back on advance voting, especially in places where a few polls were open on Sundays and church groups (mostly in black neighborhoods) would hire a bus and drive to vote after their service.

All dressed up with somewhere really important to go.

Meanwhile, laws in Kansas and Arizona that require newly registering voters to produce proof of citizenship to vote in state elections — but not in federal races — was recently upheld by a federal judge who also carries the burden of once being a college roommate of mine. He ruled on a fairly narrow point of law, allowing me to go on and speak no further ill of a fellow Wheatshocker.

There is some good news on this score, though. And it comes from a place that, given what is happening in other Republican-controlled states, might be a big surprise: Utah.

Utah has a voter ID requirement, too. But it is a lot less exclusionary than the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania models. While the official photo ID, like a driver license, is the Golden Ticket, folks can use such things as other government ID, utility bills, bank statements and, of course, that holy of holies, the Utah concealed weapons permit.

More remarkable, the Legislature this last session passed a bill that will allow, by local option, a pilot program where eligible voters can register to vote at the polls on Election Day.

Maybe our Republicans are better than other states' Republicans. Or just more confident that they can still win, no matter what the rules are.

But there is a better way. It's to expand the centuries-old Blackstone Commentaries definition of freedom of speech and of the press to the right to vote.

No prior restraint.

Say what you want. Publish what you please. Register and vote as you are moved to. No hoops to jump through or official imprimatur to be sought. And only after the fact — only if you've been found to have been slanderous, libelous, a clear and present danger to national security, or to have voted illegally — can any legal boom be lowered.

In a nation where freedom is now officially weighed in favor of those who can afford it, it may be the only way to leave the people some power.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is available to speak to your group, too. Cheap.





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