Chris Christie Comes Out Against Democracy

The New Jersey governor is totally fine with making it harder for his constituents to vote.
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The New Jersey governor is totally fine with making it harder for his constituents to vote.
Chris Christie files paperwork for the New Hampshire primary at the State House on November 6, 2015, in Concord. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Chris Christie files paperwork for the New Hampshire primary at the State House on November 6, 2015, in Concord. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Chris Christie isn't asking for your vote. In fact, he would prefer that you didn't vote at all.

That's the message the New Jersey governor and presidential hopeful sent on Monday, when he vetoed legislation that would have expanded early voting in the state and brought more than 1.6 million new voters into the polls. The bill, dubbed the "Democracy Act," also aimed to create online voter registration and automatic voter enrollment for state and local elections for all citizens applying for driver's licenses. The measure would have made New Jersey the third state in the country to adopt the last of these measures. Instead, Christie has established that his oath to promote "peace and prosperity" for the citizens of New Jersey does not include helping them fulfill their civic duty.

Christie's been thwarting attempts to expand the New Jersey electorate for years. In 2013, Christie vetoed a bill mandating that polls open two weeks before state elections. And while the Democracy Act was passed with a 24–16 majority in the state Senate back in June, the bill has languished in Christie's pocket for nearly five months. "I don't think that people ought to be automatically registered to vote," he said in June. "Is it really too much to ask someone to fill out a form?"

Voting restrictions designed to fight the invisible villain of fraud create a real problem of disenfranchisement.

That's not the real reason Christie vetoed the bill; like other opponents of voting rights legislation, the governor cited the potential for election fraud as the basis of his veto. "In New Jersey, we have early voting that are available to people," he said in the weeks leading up to the Democracy Act vote in the state legislature. "I don't want to expand it and increase the opportunities for fraud."

There's just one big problem: That premise is totally unfounded. In 2014, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt investigated the prevalence of voter fraud for the Brennan Center for Justice to see if there was any truth to those claims of an "epidemic" of electoral deceit. After examining data on "specific, credible allegation[s]" of fraud, Levitt found only 31 instances of actual fraud since 2001. "To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents below come in the context of general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014," he wrote in the Washington Post. "In general and primary elections alone, more than one billion ballots were cast in that period." That means fraud occurs 0.0000031 percent of the time.

Levitt's report on voter fraud for the Brennan Center shows that the specter is especially overblown in New Jersey. Allegations of voter fraud in the run-up to the 2005 election yielded only eight cases where voters knowingly voted twice or deceased voters managed to get on the polls. "Given the number of votes cast in these elections, this amounts to a rate of 0.0004 [percent]," Levitt observed. "None of these problems could have been resolved by requiring photo ID at the polls," he added in reference to the restrictions favored by Christie's political ilk that often disenfranchise poor and uneducated voters. Even if every deceased voter who ended up on the voter polls in 2005 or double voter who allegedly voted in another state before New Jersey actually committed fraud, that still only comes out 0.61 percent votes at most that could sway the course of an election. Allegations of widespread voter fraud are, it seems, greatly exaggerated.

But you know what's not exaggerated? Voter disenfranchisement, which isn't just political nonsense on the same level as gerrymandering; it's a fundamental betrayal of the promise of American democracy. A 2008 paper in American Politics Research billed as "the most extensive research yet conducted to assess the accuracy of claims concerning the impact of photo ID requirements," affirms the conventional wisdom that voter restrictions, like those related to presenting an ID at the polls, generally affect "African Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, the poor, and those living in rural areas." This is why voter ID laws have become such a huge issue for voting-rights advocates: Eleven percent of voting-age citizens in the United States (that's 21 million people) don't have a legitimate photo ID, including 25 percent of African Americans (compared to just eight percent of whites). If a driver's license costs between $14.50 and $58.50, according to the Government Accountability Office, this is a substantial burden for certain segments of the electorate. And yet, instead of helping these people make their way to the ballot box, Christie just opted to make fulfilling their civic duty harder.

To be clear, Christie's veto is not outright disenfranchisement of the type barred by the 19th Amendment, but it presents a barrier to voting that the government has a duty to remedy. To this end, Christie is essentially shirking his obligation as steward of his state's democratic process. But sadly, keeping the poor, unwashed masses away from the polls has long been an American tradition, a quirk of the Progressive Era reforms designed to cut down on the "too high" voter turnout numbers juiced by state and municipal political machines. "Even where specific electoral crimes weren't occurring, many reformers were uncomfortable with parties encouraging the wrong sort of people—the uneducated, the illiterate, immigrants, freed slaves, etc.—to get out and vote," Pacific Standard's Seth Masket observed in 2013:

Nineteenth century reformer Andrew White warned of "a crowd of illiterate peasants, freshly raked from Irish bogs, or Bohemian mines, or Italian robber nests, [who] may exercise virtual control," even while they were "not alive even to their own most direct interests." Charles Francis Adams Jr., the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, cautioned that "universal suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice—it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic coast, an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific."

Considering that restrictions like voter ID laws disproportionately impact African-American voters—who have primarily supported the Democratic Party in recent elections—it's fairly clear that conjuring the specter of fraud (in the form of black criminality) at the polls is a political ploy to keep certain voters from changing the outcome of an election. Masket notes that the voter reforms of the Progressive Era were highly effective at keeping poorer and less-educated American from making their way to the polls. It should come as no shock that 21 states added voting restrictions after the 2010 election, which swept the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party onto the political stage. The political machines inspired by Tammany Hall may have faded away into history, but their tactics haven't.

Following Christie's veto, voting rights advocates lashed out at the governor. "Automatic registration is good for the country, and good for New Jersey," said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, in a statement. "Instead of passing laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, lawmakers must work to modernize our voting system for the 21st century." This gets to the heart of the issue: Voting restrictions designed to fight the invisible villain of fraud create a real problem of disenfranchisement. Christie is failing the people of New Jersey, all of whom have a constitutional right to get a say in the course and business of their government.

For shame, Chris Christie. For shame.