Voting Rights

Voicing Our Values—To Uphold the Freedom to Vote

This resource is intended to help lawmakers, candidates and activists understand how to argue for voting rights. It’s an addendum to our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, and as we explain here, we have tried to make this resource as easy-to-use as possible by placing model language in boxes throughout. We encourage you to adapt the language to your own voice and personalize it with your own knowledge and experience. For more detailed messaging advice on this topic, see Talking About Voting 2012 from the Brennan Center for Justice and the Advancement Project.

For a PDF copy of Voicing Our Values—To Uphold the Freedom to Vote, click here. 

In general, progressives seek to make voter registration simpler and more accurate, and voting more convenient. Right wingers try to make it harder for eligible American citizens to register and vote. Our argument is based on freedom, patriotism, and the modernization of our outmoded voting systems. Their argument is based on the fear of voter fraud.

Whether you are arguing for a progressive reform or against a right-wing restriction, begin with a statement of your values.

Say . . .

In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system ought to be the fairest. 

Why . . .

You must put the conversation in context. When talking about voting, progressives have two great advantages that are too-rarely used by our side:

  1. Freedom—The most popular and powerful “value” in political debate is freedom. Use it here. If voting is understood as a basic right like freedom of speech, then it should never be curbed unless it risks an immediate, serious threat to public safety (shouting fire in a crowded theater). Our freedom to vote should never be limited without an overriding reason—and none exists. If you can win the frame that voting is a fundamental freedom, you’ll ultimately win the argument.
  2. Patriotism—Americans are proud of American democracy and an appeal to that pride will certainly help you to persuade.

What about “Voter Fraud”?

As you surely know, almost no one attempts to vote by impersonating an eligible voter. That’s because it’s a crime punishable by five years in prison. So it’s not a problem. And yet, impersonation is the only kind of voter fraud that could be prevented by requiring voters to display photo identification.

The problem is, Americans firmly believe that voter fraud exists. According to a Washington Post poll, 48% say voter fraud is a “major problem,” 33% think it’s a “minor problem,” and only 14% believe it’s “not a problem.” Americans probably believe that because we do have an anecdotal history of “voting from the graveyard,” and the 2000 election did expose the fact that some election administrators are extremely inept.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Voter fraud

Illegal voting

 

Fundamental freedom

Most basic right in a democracy

Free, fair and accessible

Why . . .

Expect the right wing to cry “voter fraud” no matter what legislation is being considered. The best messaging advice is—don’t say that F-word. You cannot win the argument by educating voters that fraud is rare. (E.g., see this poll.) The best tactic is to acknowledge the importance of protecting the integrity of our elections and push the debate away from fraud and toward the goal of making elections “free, fair and accessible.” That phrase is poll-tested and it works.

When arguing against voter ID legislation, appeal to freedom and patriotism as suggested in the narrative above, and then:

Say . . .

It is essential to protect the integrity of our elections. But in the process, we cannot infringe on freedom; we cannot deny voters an election that is both fair and accessible. Requiring Election Day precinct officials to examine every voter’s identification and limiting qualified ID to just a few types will create long lines for everyone, increase election costs by millions of dollars, and make it much harder—or impossible—for millions of eligible senior citizens and military veterans to have their votes counted. There are more effective ways to keep our elections honest, while at the same time, upholding our fundamental freedom to vote. 

Why . . .

This argument never uses the word “fraud” and does not dispute the existence of voter fraud. It suggests instead that this particular legislation is flawed. Specifically it makes three points:

  1. Long lines—In considering any policy, people first want to know how it affects them personally. Voter ID will increase everyone’s waiting time at the polls, perhaps by a lot. Let voters understand they will be personally inconvenienced by this law.
  2. Taxpayer costs—Right now any unnecessary government spending is unpopular. A photo ID requirement means the government will have to pay to educate voters about the new rules, educate precinct officials, and perhaps pay for staff or machinery in order to speed up the delays it will cause. This may sound like a small point, but it played a big role in winning the 2012 Minnesota referendum on voter ID.
  3. Voter suppression—This is the most important argument but, to be effective, limit your examples to the most sympathetic victims. Average Americans can be persuaded by focusing on seniors and veterans who are lifelong voters, they no longer have valid driver’s licenses, and they would have a hard time getting substitute ID. Americans are less likely to be persuaded by hearing about people in poverty who lack identification.

In a longer back-and-forth conversation you might also get some traction by pointing out that voter ID is motivated by politicians who are trying to “rig” or “manipulate the system” to benefit themselves. But this argument may lose credibility when spoken by someone who is him/herself a politician.

Do not underestimate the difficulty of the progressive argument. Average Americans generally believe the conservative talking points are true. After all, we have to show photo ID whenever we get on an airplane and even when we buy Sudafed at the drugstore. Why not require it when we vote? Understand that we start this debate at a severe disadvantage, so we must be mindful of Americans’ beliefs and use our best-informed messaging to win them over.

Progressive Voter Reforms

In most states, the voter registration and Election Day systems are ancient, inefficient and inaccurate. That’s why we need to modernize these systems with processes and technologies that are commonplace everywhere else except in the administration of elections.

Say . . .

The procedures we use to conduct elections now were designed for our great grandparents. They don’t fit the way we live or the technologies available to us today. By modernizing the election process, we eliminate long lines, cut costs, make it more convenient for eligible citizens to vote, and maintain the integrity of the voting system. [Online registration/early voting/other reform] will help make our elections free, fair and accessible for all of us. 

Why . . .

Progressives usually want to talk about how automatic, online or Election Day registration helps people who are not registered. We want to explain how early or absentee voting helps people who aren’t able to vote. But overwhelmingly, the audience we’re trying to persuade is registered and manages to vote. So we need to focus on how progressive reforms benefit them personally—for example, how members of your audience deserve the convenience of their voter registration being automatically transferred to a new address when they move.

A very good description of the substantive arguments for the various progressive election reforms can be found in this report from the Center for American Progress. When you argue for any of these, appeal to modern technologies and modern life. “The system needs to be modernized and brought into the 21st Century.” “Today’s outdated system is vulnerable to manipulation and human error.” “In this day and age, no one should ever be denied the fundamental freedom to vote when commonplace technology can ensure our elections are free, fair and accessible.” 

For much more discussion of how to talk to voters about a wide variety of issues, see our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available at www.progressivemajorityaction.org.

Sources for more detailed information about voting rights and reforms

 

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