The Government Belongs to Us
Voter ID law shows that someone needs to remind the government who is in charge
With the presidential election looming, I have been thinking a lot about the voting process. After all, this is the first time I time I will legally be able to vote for the President of the United States. During the last few months, I have been pondering whether to obtain an absentee ballot from my home state of Pennsylvania or to declare myself a Massachusetts resident in order to physically cast a vote here. Just as I became convinced that Pennsylvania would be relegated to political obscurity after only a brief period of electoral competitiveness, the state drudged into unprecedented political relevancy. Suddenly, I found myself debating a voting issue that propelled my home state into national headlines.
Pennsylvania now finds itself in the midst of one of this year’s biggest political controversies: the voter identification law requiring individuals to submit proof of citizenship before casting their ballots. This initiative made national news about a month ago, when it was signed into law, and has attracted national attention from those who claim it is a way for the Pennsylvanian Republican Party to suppress reliably blue votes in places like inner city Philadelphia.
For the past month now, I have debated the pros and cons of the issue, firmly undecided on my opinion of the matter. I am sympathetic to the cause of cracking down on voter fraud—there is no doubt in my mind that only full-fledged citizens should have the right to vote. Ensuring that this remains the case seems to be a noble pursuit. If the ID cards are truly gratis—which they are—I see no reason to believe asking voters to obtain them to be an overly capricious request. After all, if Americans are truly looking to participate in the civic responsibility of democracy, they should have no problem working within societal measures in this age of hyper-security. Proof of identification is required for a whole host of functions in daily life—I have no shortage of memories about giving recreational sports leagues my social security number during my youth. This law, it seemed, was “reasonable,” the word I would use most when describing it. I will admit that my defense of the measure contained a hint of equivocation, as I was not prepared to occupy the position as a knowledgeable Pennsylvania voter.
Last week, that all changed. Ironically enough, it was a video played during the Democratic National Convention that changed my mind. The video extolled the advantages of the state, saying that, “government is the only thing we all belong to.” It denigrated our various interests in civil society by mocking our “different churches, different clubs”—the sort of civil society Alexis de Tocqueville lauded in observing American greatness. This, I immediately thought, is not the way I envision my American citizenship. I do not belong to the government. America is not a communist country, and the government is not the Party. No, the government belongs to me.
Thus, I became opposed to my state’s contentious voter ID law. The government only exists because we, as citizens, vote it in place. There is no government without people to elect it. By ensuring that citizens wishing to vote are registered with the government, the state immediately assumes the dominant side in the relationship. Suddenly, instead of a government that only exists when there are voters, there are voters who only exist at the whims of the government. Giving the government the power to decide who gets to vote it in and out of power is a dangerous precedent that can lead to widespread disenfranchisement. The law already gives the government the authority to reject college IDs from out of state or those lacking expiration dates. I understand that, in theory, individuals can obtain free ID cards from the government, but government is, in practice, quite possibly the most ineffective institution ever built by man. Any piece of legislation with the ability hurt citizens with the dual-edged sword of government malevolence and feebleness seems ill-advised.
We the People. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, this phrase still serves as the opening to this country’s historic governing document. It should also serve as a reminder that we created the government. We controlled its rise and, if we decide so electorally, we can control its fall. Government did not create us. While this summer’s landmark Supreme Court case may have ruled that government does have the power to mandate—er, tax—us, that does not mean we should let that happen lightly. It is one thing for government to ruminate on the best policies for the general welfare. It is quite another for government to legislate when the only welfare at stake is its own.
I will vote in Pennsylvania. Obtaining an absentee ballot is a bothersome task but one of newfound importance. While my vote may not matter in either the presidential or senatorial contests, it will matter for legitimacy. It will serve as a reminder that I control the government. The government of Pennsylvania can only exist as long as I vote it in. I need to send it that message in a hurry.
John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.