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More on the Politics of ID, the Politics of Carter-Baker PDF  | Print |  Email
By Bob Bauer   
June 02, 2008
This article was posted at Bob Bauer's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

Heather Gerken and I have commented on Bob Pastor’s recent defense of the Carter-Baker Commission’s work, particularly its endorsement of  voter ID as a measure linked to enhanced state voter registration programs.  We suggest that political compromise may have its virtues in a host of contexts, but in this instance, on the ID issue, political bargaining did not serve the public well.

This is not an unqualified indictment of Carter-Baker, which made worthy contributions to the election law reform debate, but the Commission’s urge to achieve a political settlement of the ID issue was unfortunate.  Its position has become a citation, taken by the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections, lending the false impression of substance to a case weakly argued on the merits—meaning, also, on the data, of which there was virtually none. The best the Commission could do was bow to public fears of fraud, and these, too, were overstated and cannot support, without more, the imposition of an ID requirement.

I would add a little more from my perspective to the problems with Carter-Baker, problems of both design and execution that created or compounded the flaw of a politicized outcome.

1.  A Commission must be structured with attention to the perception issues—perceptions of political purpose—in the appointment of leadership.  It is not clear that the classic pairing of the "prominent Republican” with the “prominent Democrat" does more than seed the expectation that a Commission’s work will be an exercise in political compromise.  This is particularly true where the co-chairs are creatures of electoral politics.  And, of course, if the choice is to call on experienced politicians, then there is little surprise in an experienced political response—bargaining toward compromise.

2.  The calendar established by the Commission raised eyebrows—the Commission was announced in late March, held its first hearing in April, conducted two half-days of hearings, and issued a report in September—with 87 recommendations.  Not much time was arranged for deliberation, and it invites the suspicion that bargaining rather than deliberation on the available data was the only path to the achievement of so ambitious an agenda in so short a time.

3. That positions have been yoked together may constitute a “compromise” but not all compromises are the same.  The compromise reached by Carter-Baker incorporated one position favored by the right and the other by left: ID and more universal registration, respectively.  But the more immediate issue was ID, churning in the states and headed toward the Courts, and the compromise could only have foreseeable effects on that issue.  Linking ID to more vigorous state registration programs is a nice notion, arguably promising in theory, but it remains in the circumstances only notional.  Not so the endorsement of ID, as events bore out.

In short, this is a compromise in one sense, on paper, but it is a sure win for ID in the near term and no more than the suggestion for the future, uncertain of realization, of a linkage of ID to expanded registration.  Moreover, once ID requirements have swept the country, it is not obvious how the leverage is regained for the fashioning of the all-critical link to registration.

This is the peril of any political compromise, of any turn away from policy to political balancing: the balance can get lost in the brew. What bubbles to the top may be bad policy and, for one side to the political argument, a bad result.  How bad the result, for that one side, became clear when the Supreme Court gratefully latched onto Carter-Baker, as a solution to the absence of data.

4. Finally, if there is a political challenge to be met, the intervention of a Commission managed by experienced politicians transfers the political decision-making burden from the political process as a whole, in its familiar workings—those of organizing and persuasion and argument—to an elite leadership that tries to cut short the conflict by showing the “bipartisan” road to peace.  Never to be ruled out, this maneuver should be handled with care, used rarely.  Made with the best of intentions, the endorsement of a “bipartisan” solution can severely weaken or disable an entire line of political argument and activity.

In this case, it was clear that President Carter judged the war against oppressive ID regimes to be going poorly.  He gave this as a major reason of striving for compromise—though he made it sound more like a tactical retreat.   In short order, his choice—the consequence of his political judgment—boxed the anti-ID movement into an ever tighter corner.  First it had to contend with Carter-Baker; then it was saddled with the Supreme Court, in Crawford, relying on Carter-Baker.

The coalition mobilized against ID might have wished to be left to fight another day, unburdened by these developments, regardless of how the former President assessed their prospects.  The political struggle over ID was not resolved by Carter-Baker. The terms of the struggle were changed to the detriment of ID critics, and not on the weight of data or the quality of persuasion. It was simply a political defeat, administered from outside the political process.
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