Framining: What Would Real Election Integrity Mean?

by Evan Frisch, Arianna Siegel / Rockridge Institute / Sept. 28, 2006

The "Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006" (H.R. 4844) passed by the House of Representatives last week challenges us to think about the meaning of the words "election integrity," just as it would challenge citizens who wish to exercise the right to vote. The Act would impose increasing burdens, which by 2010, would require all voters to provide proof of citizenship in order to apply for a state-issued voter ID. Only a birth certificate, a passport, or a certificate of naturalization would be acceptable proof, documents that a great many Americans do not possess. As we examine the hurdles that this legislation would impose, particularly upon Americans who have already faced unfair barriers to voting, let us also set forth a positive vision of what real election integrity would mean. The chasm between this vision and the House bill reveals much about the values that divide progressives from conservatives.

Voting is the central and defining function of our democracy. There have been numerous, well-documented accounts of voting irregularities since the 2000 election, serious enough to cast doubts on the integrity of our voting process. These include faulty tabulation of electronic voting machines, where votes for one candidate were registered to the opponent, or more votes were counted than the number of registered voters in some districts; insufficient numbers of machines, causing long lines with large numbers voters being turned away; breakdowns of machines with insufficient paper alternatives; no verifiable record of votes. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has most recently written on Diebold machines in Rolling Stone Magazine. As a recent New York Times article noted, an increasing number of state and local officials of both parties lack confidence in the integrity of electronic voting machines and are taking steps to limit or reverse the use of these machines in the November elections. The issues these reports raise have not been adequately addressed by Congress. Most calls for reform have been blocked by conservatives and few changes have been implemented. Some of these changes have even exacerbated the problems, such as mandates in the Help America Vote Act for computerization of voter rolls and use of the problematic electronic voting machines across the nation.

Given the flaws in our voting system, what problem does the House bill seek to solve? The bill frames the problem of our electoral system as the Illegal Immigrant Voter Problem, (or, in some cases, the Criminal Voter Problem – double or “dead” voters). In this frame, the Illegal Immigrant Voter is the villain who threatens U.S. elections. This framing of what is wrong with the nation's voting system seems to lead naturally to a solution: impose strict security to block the Illegal Immigrant from voting. As we have discussed previously, the use of the Illegal Frame in the context of immigration stresses criminality as the defining attribute of a class of people.

The repeated use of the Illegal Immigrant frame activates deep frames related to police protection from a criminal threat. In such a law and order frame, progressives who oppose the House bill are characterized as failing to protect the citizenry from criminals. Moreover, progressives may be painted as corrupt, seeking to win the votes of such criminals at the expense of their legitimate constituents.

Progressives recognize that the "Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006" both focuses on a groundless threat and exacerbates real problems. The Illegal Immigrant Voter Problem is clearly without merit because to live in the U.S. without legal status is to be wary of contact with government authorities, not to risk deportation by voluntarily submitting to scrutiny at a polling place. The number of “double” or “dead” voters is also miniscule. As Congressman Xavier Becerra has demonstrated, the House bill would disenfranchise people who are already vulnerable, among them the elderly, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and victims of natural disasters, especially those living in poverty. Given the fact that many people in these groups have a history of favoring progressive candidates and policies, the House bill can also be regarded as a strategic initiative. In arguing for the bill, conservatives can continue to define progressives as failing to protect citizens from a criminal threat. Were the bill enacted, conservatives could benefit further from the suppression of legitimate votes by voters who tend to favor progressives. At the same time, progressive campaigns would be forced to devote their own resources toward ensuring that voters in such communities would obtain the required identification in time to qualify to exercise their rights as citizens.

True election integrity, in contrast with the conservative plan to thwart a phantom threat, would empower all citizens to exercise their right to vote and instill confidence that our government will count all votes accurately. Our current electoral system is a confusing patchwork of widely varying state laws. Election integrity would include creating a unified national voting system where all citizens have the same rights and every state offers equal opportunities to vote. It would return responsibility for the electoral process to the government, taking it out of the hands of private corporations such as Diebold. It would fortify voting machine security, and require a verifiable record of every vote transaction. It would ensure access and accuracy, not impose roadblocks.

A voting system that cannot assure that every vote is accurately counted is fundamentally broken. We must recognize this broken system as a far greater threat to our democracy than the threat of undocumented or “criminal” voters, and make its correction our highest priority.