Voter Suppression vs. Voter Fraud (and, by the way, this is bad framing)
By Lisa Greene
April 13 2021
What with 47 state legislatures passing or looking to pass voter suppression legislation, this is a timely and extremely important issue to talk about and act on.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word suppress as “to put down by authority or force” and defines fraud as “an act of deceiving or misrepresenting.” It could be said that to “put down by authority” connotes a systemic act by an authority or government and “an act of deceiving” connotes an act by an individual. If we look at how liberals and conservatives view the world, it makes sense that liberals would think of the voting issue in the systemic suppression frame and conservatives would think of the issue in the individual fraud frame.
Of course, we know that voter fraud perpetrated by individuals is so negligible that it hasn’t affected the outcome of any election. Yet Republicans have been very successful at getting their base to believe the individual fraud problem is so widespread that laws have to be passed to stop it. Democrats (quite rightly) see the issue as Republican-led state legislatures moving to suppress votes by creating many barriers to voting that are specifically targeted at people of color, young people and people living in poverty. The overall effect is to prevent people who are less likely to vote for Republicans from voting. And thereby denying American citizens their most basic right – to vote.
Let’s look at this through George Lakoff’s lens of systemic causation. In his book, “The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant,” he says this: “Systemic causation has a structure – four possible elements that can exist alone or in combination. Driving a complex, systemic problem, there can be one, two, three, or all four of these elements in play.”(Lakoff, pp 36-38) For the voter suppression issue, they may be explained like this:
- A network of direct causes: 1) Requiring an ID to vote creates a barrier to those who don’t have a state-sanctioned ID. People in poverty or who don’t have access to transportation may find it difficult to obtain an ID. People who work at jobs that don’t allow them to leave work may also find it difficult to obtain an ID. Both would prevent people from voting. 2) Limiting the number of ballot drop boxes in an area makes it difficult for people who lack reliable transportation to get to a drop box thereby limiting or curtailing their ability to vote. 3) Limiting the number of ballot booths at a location or limiting the number of voting locations causes people to wait in extremely long lines for hours thereby making it difficult for them to vote. 4) Making it a crime to provide water or food to people waiting in line to vote – this is just mean-spirited and cruel. There’s no other reason for it that I can see.
- Feedback loops: 1) The GOP promoting the “Big Lie” that widespread voter fraud cost Trump the election is their “reason” for introducing and passing suppression laws. 2) These laws will in turn prevent the people the GOP do not want to vote from voting. 3) Less people will vote for Democrats thereby helping Republicans win elections potentially keeping them in power. 4) The GOP led state legislatures can pass more legislation oppressing people, specifically BIPOC.
- Multiple causes: Let’s think of this issue in terms of Republicans maintaining their power in a country that leans liberal. Other systems are in play. Gerrymandering gives Republicans a majority in many districts while concentrating Democratic votes into as few districts as possible. Each state getting two senators regardless of population gives low-population rural states who tend to vote Republican an advantage in the Senate. The winner-take-all Electoral College also gives low-population rural states an advantage in Presidential elections.
- Probabilistic causation: We can’t predict if these suppression laws will cause an individual voter to not vote. But by looking at all the direct causes created by these laws, we can predict that a significant number of people will not be able to vote.
All of these systemic causes that prevent voting will continue to limit our democracy if we can’t or don’t do something about it. We know that voter fraud is not the issue. We also know that framing this issue in terms of voter suppression is not helping us. People are not separating the word fraud from suppression thereby potentially evoking the fraud frame when we use the word suppression and reinforcing the GOP’s message.
How do we make a very complex systemic issue relatable to others? Stop and analyze what others are saying. Drop words that don’t work – like voter suppression. Roll with our values. What don’t we want? We don’t want legislatures to create barriers to voting. Protect our right to vote. Stop deliberate barriers to voting. What do we want? We want our democracy. We want American citizens to be able to exercise their right to vote. We want our government to fairly represent all the people. Freedom. Democracy. The Right to Vote. Fairness. Start using these words in your communication. When you think about your deeply held values and communicate intentionally, your words will be more likely to persuade.