by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Follow Professor Ellis on Twitter @atibaellis
The debate over voter identification laws in this election season has shown once again that the voter fraud debate has shaped the right to vote over the last decade. Recently, voter identification laws in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas – passed on the belief that the integrity of elections must be defended against the imminent threat of voters who will impersonate other voters and otherwise commit fraud—has spurred substantial litigation and, most recently, generated a hotly contested denial of a stay of the Texas voter ID law over a scathing dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Scholars like Lorraine Minnite, Richard Hasen, Justin Levitt and others, have shown that this voter fraud claim is a myth. Yet, right-leaning pundits like Hans von Spakofsky and Mona Charen have argued that voter fraud will likely occur in the 2014 election. Thus, some pundits, politicians and grassroots organizations like True the Vote see rampant voter fraud as real and looming, despite all research to the contrary.
This voter fraud claim is often seen as partisan-motivated propaganda or a means perpetuating racial subordination – some call it the return of Jim Crow. Yet, as I argue in an article recently published in the Catholic University Law Review, these claims must be connected to the long saga of voter suppression in the United States. In The Meme of Voter Fraud (also available here), I explain that the voter fraud myth is the latest step in the evolution of the American ideology of exclusion – the belief that “unworthy” citizens should be excluded from the electorate.
A meme (an idea based on evolutionary theory) is any idea, belief, concept or behavior that spreads and replicates in the culture. Memes replicate through, among other ways, the sharing of narratives, teaching, or posting on the Internet (think cat videos!). Memes are appealing because they play into a person’s experiences, and on some level people identify with them. This fact prompts a person to share the idea, and the most attractive memes spread virally. As a meme spreads, people often modify it to attract a broader audience. The new recipients will in turn transform the meme again and replicate it, causing it to evolve (and the changes that fail cause that particular meme to die off). A meme’s appeal and its ability to meet our psychological needs – for instance, for political or social power – causes people to spread memes, not the truth or falsity of the meme.
People can connect one meme with other memes to develop a complex set of ideas – an ideology – which we use to view the world. And, as scholar J.M. Balkin has observed, ideologies that spur us to action to subjugate the rights of others inevitably result in injustice. Memes can enable power plays, and those most invested in maintaining that power maintain the meme to this end, despite any oppression that might occur.