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Why conservatives should hate Georgia’s voting restrictions

Georgia’s new election law, signed by the state’s Republican governor Thursday night, has been protested by Democrats up to and including President Biden. And no wonder: While the law does make some commonsense reforms (like expanding some weekend voting and allowing poll workers to help out in neighboring counties when needed), its more controversial components are blatantly restrictive.

Among other changes, the legislation criminalizes photographing your own ballot as well as directly giving people food or water while they wait in line to vote. It reduces the number of absentee ballot boxes available and the time in which voters can request an absentee ballot while also making the request process more complicated. For “anyone whose brain hasn’t been melted by partisan politics,” Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown observes, “it’s a pretty transparent attempt to sway election results, or at least to play to voter fraud fears.” Those are largely Republican fears, and Democrats worry their voters will be disproportionately disenfranchised by the strictures.

But any conservative should be opposed to the unreasonable elements of this law, too. I don’t mean “conservative” as in a party-line Republican who loved Rush Limbaugh and can’t say no to a big, beautiful border wall. I mean it in a more temperamental sense, “conservative” as in someone who wants to preserve tradition and institutional stability, to thicken the thin veil that separates our society from chaos.

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Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that temperament in terms of five moral values:

  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/Reciprocity
  3. In-Group/Loyalty
  4. Authority/Respect
  5. Purity/Sanctity

The difference between conservatives and liberals, he argues in his book and TED talk on the subject, is that conservatives act with all five values in mind, while liberals only pay attention to the first two, care and fairness. This isn’t a deficiency in liberals, Haidt says, but a moral choice to value diversity over in-group loyalty and to question authority and traditional notions of social and sexual purity. (Liberals’ narrower focus does give Republicans an advantage in electoral politics, Haidt observes, because attending to the final three values lets them make compelling, gut-level appeals to many Americans who are not exclusively liberal or conservative by temperament.)

The voting restrictions in Georgia run afoul of at least three of these values, two of them conservative distinctives. First, making it more difficult for fellow Americans to vote — which many of these changes unquestionably do — is a violation of in-group loyalty in our project of self-governance. The law’s defenders insist the added difficulty is only meant to curtail fraud, but that’s a gloopy gush of brain-melt: Anyone determined to commit voter fraud, particularly on the massive scale imagined in Republican election theft fantasies, will not be deterred by a shorter absentee ballot request period and the like. Elderly people with limited tech and transport access or busy, working-class parents very well might be. The other defense, that the poor and minority voters expected to be most affected by the law are not in the “real Americans” in-group, is one of which I assume the GOP does not wish to avail itself.

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The next value violated here is authority. This might be counterintuitive. Parts of this law expand state authority, so how can it violate the authority norm? The answer is that even though formal, legal authority expands, moral authority is diminished, and moral authority matters in popular government. We’ve seen in recent months the ill effects of large swaths of the public doubting the legitimacy of our elections, believing they are not merely beset by the usual human foibles but fundamentally corrupt. Unjustified and unjust voting restrictions will replicate that belief elsewhere in the public. This doesn’t conserve institutional strength but undermines it.

Perhaps most notable to me, however, is the third violated value: fairness. Unreasonable and needless voting restrictions are dishonorable. They’re shameless, disgraceful, a poor loser’s move. It’s changing the rules of the game instead of putting in the work to win it as-is or accepting victory isn’t possible.

We have a bad habit in American politics — especially but not exclusively on the right — of dismissing pleas for fairness when they’re inconvenient. It’s not faaaaaaair, we answer in a mocking, playground whine. Buck up, sonny, life’s not fair. That’s certainly true, but it’s also true that fairness, so closely linked as it is to justice, order, and generosity, is something to which we should aspire, not least in rule of law.

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Fairness is not solely a liberal virtue, and undermining it is not conservative.