MSNBC.com Attacks ‘Conservative Case to Limit Voting’

As we've documented time and again, MSNBC.com’s Zachary Roth is obsessed with defending the ballot box from his favorite villain: the GOP. His February 18 item may have taken the cake for fear-mongering and outright peddling of liberal talking points.

Roth penned a nearly 1500-word piece in which he threw together examples from the 1800s and 1900s where certain segments of the population were excluded from voting -- by Democrats, of course -- as evidence of the “conservative case to limit voting.”

Roth began his essay be pushing comments made by venture capitalist Tom Perkins who held forth his idea that:

You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes. What I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?

That's one rich guy spouting off, perhaps facetiously at that, his ideas about how voting should work, but it's certainly not emblematic of how conservatives think about safeguarding the ballot box from fraud. But it's enough for Roth to run with to tar and feather conservatives as a whole.

Roth went on to claim that unlike conservatives: 

Progressives think of voting as a right. It’s the way a society of equals makes decisions. That’s why progressives generally see bringing new voters into the process as a good thing in itself. The more people involved, the more democratic the process, and the more legitimate the outcome.

But the conservative case is NOT that new voters is a bad thing but that low-information voters are prone to manipulation by demagogues. Voting is a right, but the ballot box should be safeguarded from fraud and every voter has a moral -- though not legally-binding -- duty to himself and to his/her country to enter the ballot box having properly informed him/herself about the issues and where the candidates stand on them. 

But why bother charitably and accurately giving folks a summation of a conservative philosophy of the voter's civic duty when the goal is to demonize folks on the right?

Indeed, Roth spent three exhausting paragraphs desperately trying to compare actual disenfranchisement laws in the bad old days of Jim Crow -- again, in the then-Democrat-controlled South -- with current voting law reforms:

That view of voting has deep roots in American history, scholars of U.S. democracy say. It’s how the citizens of the early Republic who gathered on village greens to vote in public, with the broad interests of the community uppermost in their minds, conceived of what they were doing. It’s no coincidence that of the 13 original colonies, the three most prominent – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia – to this day call themselves not states but commonwealths, political communities that were founded for the common good.

But from the start, that notion of voting for the common good paradoxically provided a rationale for excluding less-privileged groups from casting a ballot. In the years after U.S. independence from Britain, those who lacked property were barred from voting. The thinking went that non-property owners couldn’t be counted on to keep the common good in mind, and might sell their votes to the land owners on whom they depended.

By the 1830s, property-less white males were mostly enfranchised. But tax-paying requirements of the kind Perkins suggested followed in their wake for a while. And groups including blacks–not just slaves, but many who were nominally free–women, and later immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, would continue to be shut out in large numbers, with similar justifications used.

Roth then raised the specter of literacy tests and argued that they “were used against both immigrants in the north during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and blacks in the Jim Crow south: that only the literate can be informed enough to be entrusted with the vote.” Of course, the MSNBC.com reporter conveniently failed to mention that it was southern Democrats, not Republicans, who imposed literacy tests on black voters.

The MSNBC reporter went on to cite conservative Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Matthew Vadum, all of whom have made comments saying we need to have a more informed voting population, as evidence that the GOP wants to limit voting. Will and Goldberg reject the notion that we should have an endless voting period, with Will arguing that early voting prevented voters from obtaining all the necessary information before they cast a vote. In response to Will’s comments, Zachary Roth claimed that “Of course, it’s one thing to want a better-informed electorate, and another to support a tax-paying requirement like the one Perkins floated, or the literacy tests favored by southern segregationists.

As if that weren’t enough, Roth then condemned Jonah Goldberg’s suggestion in 2005 that new voters take a citizenship test, featuring questions about U.S. history and government, certainly not the same thing as southern Democrats asking African Americans to count the number of beans in a jar. Roth continued to argue that:

It’s virtually impossible to disentangle philosophical principle from crass political or partisan advantage. Some see ideas about the common good and the value of informed voters–both in history and today–as not much more than sophisticated-sounding covers for efforts to reduce the power of people likely to vote in a different way.

Roth concluded his hit piece by quoting Alex Keyssar of Harvard University who argued that:

If you want to bend over backwards, it’s correct to say that conservatives of different eras generally had reasonable-sounding rationales, which many of them actually believed. But those rationales, were always serving other purposes at the same time. It’s always served to try to keep out of political activity the people whose interests were perceived to be in conflict, and/or people you didn’t trust, or people who you thought might be voting for the, quote, wrong people. No one has ever disenfranchised upper-middle-class white males.

MSNBC's obsessive drumbeat of "voter suppression" stories -- both on-air and online -- is no accident. The Lean Forward network is intent on whipping up fear and loathing among the Democratic base this midterm election year. The lies and distortions about Republicans serve a political purpose, despite the fact that it's drive-by journalism.

Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center.