It’s a Trap! Voter ID = Voter Fraud

Understanding Framing through Voter ID Laws and Voter Suppression

The Big Picture: Reframing

One of the most powerful tools that both political sides of the aisle use is reframing. It’s a way of changing the terms of the debate. And if you can convince someone (especially someone who’s already inclined to agree with you) that your frame is the correct frame, it becomes almost impossible to unsee it from that POV. Facts and figures will not convince someone that their frame is wrong, no matter the level of truth. Only a new, stronger framework can break someone’s way of viewing the world.

And if anybody needs a new frame, it’s Democrats.

Behavioral Politics

Overall, what I’m planning to do in these writings is something I’m going to label Behavioral Politics. Why? Because, like a cool refreshing glass of Coca-Cola, branding works in making something stick in your mind. Branding also demonstrates a key facet of Behavioral Politics: it’s not about appealing to someone’s intellect or better nature. It’s not about “objective” truth. It’s not even necessarily how you should approach policy. The cardinal rule of behavioral politics is this:

  • You deal with people as they are and not as you’d like them to be.

If people are self-interested, you work with that. If people are lazy, you work that into your strategy. If people don’t want to think about things too hard, you capitalize on that. And this cardinal rule is doubly true when it comes to mass groups of people.

And make no mistake, Republicans are EXCELLENT at this. They are completely unafraid of using any means necessary to win. Democrats, as the party is currently constructed, suck at behavioral politics. We haven’t always been bad. From the suffragettes to the labor movement to civil rights, Democrats have a long lineage of excellence in behavioral politics and we need to re-engage those skills if we want to survive.

Politics is a Fight

As much as love as I have for Michelle Obama, I’d like to suggest we most famous phrase to the following:

  • When they go low, we kick them in the fucking head.

Politics is a blood sport where there are real winners and there are real losers. And you only win by knocking your opponent on their ass. And if maybe you’re thinking “Well the Republicans have an advantage because they’re not actually worried about the welfare of other people.” You’re right. It’s a huge advantage. And the only two things you can do about it is complain about it or fight.

When it comes to the art of the fight, the civil rights movement was the undisputed masters of political jiu jitsu. They were fighters in an actual war and they won without guns. They were exceptionally smart. They were calculating. They were shrewd. They played the long game. And more importantly, they were exciting and they were dangerous.

But the civil rights movement won not only because of tactics and strategy but because their activity generated a feeling, that went beyond intellectual rationalizations. And this feeling is what allowed them to continue their fight for years. They gave a group of marginalized people the ultimate victory: pride.

So now, I’m going to dig into one of the one of the greatest victories of the left and how modern Republicans managed to effectively undermine it. It’s a Republican re-framing traps that I fell into several years ago. Voter ID laws.

But before we get there, we gotta call “Voter ID Laws” by its true name: Voter Suppression.

Voter Suppression Works!

Voter suppression is one of the oldest and most effective tactics in American politics (or white supremacy if you prefer that frame). And boy does it work well in a “Democracy.” I mean, if you want to keep power, the best way to do so is to make sure your opponents never have enough votes to take it away from you! It is seriously THE BEST WAY to keep power. As such Republicans will always try to come back to it, in any way they can.

The ultimate form of Voter Suppression is simply making it illegal for XYZ category of people (“black” people, “female” people, etc) to vote and then enforcing that through courts and through violence. As long as “they” can’t vote, “they” have no say in how the system works and you can continue to rape and murder them with impunity!

The framework that supports why certain categories of people shouldn’t be allowed to vote stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years and has many names (white supremacy, the patriarchy etc). This framework underlies the entirety of Western history, so let’s just say, I’m not going to go into the details. But popular justifications to support the white supremacist framework include they’re heathens, they’re dumb, they’re subhuman, they’re lesser, they’re savages, they need our help, they’re criminals, they threaten our way of life, this way is the “natural order” etc etc.

This frame is what the entire progressive movement is fighting. We are fighting for a frame that expresses that all people deserve equal respect and equal treatment under the law. The fight for the equality framework stretches back hundreds of years and will probably take hundreds more to complete.

And unfortunately for conservatives, from time to time in America, the voter suppression game stops working and a little more democracy gets through the cracks. Sometimes we even end up with Constitutional amendments to prevent specific kinds of voter suppression. And constitutional amendments are the ultimate re-frame. It not only re-frames something as “anti-American,” the anti-Americanness of it is backed by the full power of the US government

So how is that the conservative party has managed to continue to suppress the vote in almost direct opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendment? Through violence and new frames.

The “States Rights” & “Separate but Equal” Frames

Not all frames are created equal and their effectiveness can shift dramatically over time. In general, frames have a power based on:

  • The degree to which mass groups of people believe in them and the degree to which they are enforced.

A good modern example of a weak frame is the “Marijuana is dangerous” frame. It’s is objectively not true (most people who try marijuana immediately learn how false it is) and the State is also losing interest in violently enforcing this frame at full capacity. This doesn’t mean it’s absolutely 100% going be decriminalized by the federal government (look at Jeff Sessions), but an increasingly large number of people will no longer believe that it is actually a dangerous substance. Good political operatives, drop weak frames in favor of stronger ones.

But back to voter suppression.

So the fifteenth amendment passed in 1870, and even though it’s a constitutional amendment, it’s a weak frame. Racism is still aggressively rampant because it’s an incredibly strong frame with numerous material and psychological benefits. But even still, southern racists couldn’t openly defy the US Constitution because that would be a violation of America’s strongest frame: “The constitution is a sacred object.” And over time, their political opponents could punish them for breaking the sacred code through political means and/or State violence if they wanted to.

It’s difficult to openly defy the rules of the constitution. You need some rational to help alleviate the psychological burden of the defiance. So Southern racists used one classic American frame: “States Rights” and developed an incredibly powerful new one “Separate but Equal.”

States Rights is a powerful conservative frame that will always exist in the US. The US was founded on a corrupt deal with the slave states, who needed to find a way to ensure the newly created federal government couldn’t take away their slaves. The States Rights frame will reliably be invoked any time conservatives want to find a way around something they don’t like. When a conservative invokes “states rights” they are communicating the idea that “uppity liberals are trying to take away your freedom and culture.” It works like a charm and without a significantly more powerful Federal government, this frame may never be broken. The only thing we Democrats can do is use it our advantage whenever we can. The fight for marriage equality was an excellent example of using “States Rights” for more justice.

But after the Civil War “states rights” was a weak frame given its defeat in the Civil War. So in order to regain power, Democrats (aka modern Republicans) used physical and political violence. They gradually regained power in the Southern legislatures, having used insurgent paramilitary groups, such as the White League and Red Shirts, to disrupt Republican (aka Modern Democrats) organizing, run Republican officeholders out of town, and intimidate blacks to suppress their voting. Extensive voter fraud was also used.

Remember, conservatives in the white supremacist frame will almost always fight dirty. They always have and always will. You need to be able to recognize it every time you see it. And just like Voter Suppression, violence works! In fact they often go together like peanut butter and oppression.

But to continue to justify their racism in the face of 3 constitutional amendments, they needed a new frame that both legally and psychologically guarded them from attacks. They found it in the incredibly powerful frame: “separate but equal.”

This frame will endure for a long time because it is simple (3 words!), effective and psychologically comforting. One can be virulently racist, while simultaneously pretending you don’t unjustifiably hate another class or people. It’s a beautiful fantasy to be able to say “I don’t hate those people, I just want to legally be able to force them to somewhere else. Like the back of the bus”

So thanks to violence and the twin frames of “States Rights” and “Separate But Equal,” conservatives were able to bring back voter suppression through state and local voting Laws. These have come in all stripes and colors such as impossible literacy test or ridiculous poll taxes. And because they were set up and enforced at the state level and local level it’s easier to avoid the watchful eye of the evil federal government.

And for almost 100 years, this shit worked like a dream at suppressing votes and keep racists in power! Why? because voter suppression through state and local laws is a magic trick. Here’s how it works.

  • Step 1: give “them” the right to vote.
  • Step 2: create laws that prevent “them” from actually voting, while pretending you have good reasons for it .
  • Step 3: keep winning “free and fair” elections that magically keep putting you in power.
  • Step 4: make more racist laws to consolidate power for you and your core constituents.
  • Step 5: diminish the will to vote of the people who are being oppressed till the point where they won’t bother to vote

Voter suppression is democracy, without all that ya know, democracy.

Breaking the Separate But Equal Frame

After the 1892 Supreme Court ruling that made separate but equal a valid part of the constitutional framework, it took the forces of liberalism 62 years to break its legal power (1954 Brown v. Board of Education). Though its psychological power remains.

It then took another 11 years for a bunch no good left wing communists (like Martin Luther King Jr) to spur the federal government into attacking the god-given rights of states and counties to stop US citizens from voting. They even got a law passed (1965 Voting Right Act) that said everyone had to cut that shit out and they would check in on states and counties where racist shenanigans historically happened .

Side note. You know why the civil rights movement spent almost all their capital on the getting voting laws passed? BECAUSE THEY WERE FUCKING SMART AND STRATEGIC. Voting is the bottom of the democracy pyramid and everything you want to do is built on top of it. In a democracy, you can’t do any of the shit you want if you don’t have the fucking numbers. And REPUBLICANS are very aware of this fact, while Democrats keep having to relearn it.

But the supreme court victories of the civil rights movement combined with the 1965 Voting Rights Act didn’t just make laws, it created a powerful new frame: “Racism is something bad people do.”

So it’s finally over right? Civil rights won and there’s no more voter suppression ever cause super extra illegal and everybody knows how shitty it is. Right? Please? NOPE.

Voter ID Laws. A Framework for Voter Suppression without the appearance of “Racism”

So 50 years goes by and the broad liberal framework that says “racism is something bad people do.” is begrudgingly accepted as true. In fact, we now (almost) all judge those people in the 1960’s who were super okay with voter suppression and “separate but equal” as bad people. Which is crazy considering lots of those people are either still alive or they were possibly your parents or grandparents. MLK even went from an FBI hunted terrorist to a person with a national holiday. History moves fast people.

But here’s the thing, Voter Suppression is still THE BEST. It’s numero uno in getting the things you want if you’re Republican. The problem is now there’s a broadly agreed upon framework that says “Voter Suppression (aka “racism”) is something bad people do.” And here’s our second cardinal rule of behavioral politics:

  • No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. The other people are ALWAYS the bad guys.

So now if you’re a Republican strategist you’re really in a pickle. You know how well voter suppression works, but voter suppression is illegal and more importantly it’s something “bad people do.” And for the vast majority of people, our brains won’t let us knowingly be the “bad guy.” So how do you bring it back from the dead. Well the first thing you do is get parts of the Voter Rights Act repealed in the courts through the argument “racism is over” (which probably has to be a whole separate article). But that’s just the legal framework.

You haven’t conquered the psychological framework that “Voter Suppression is something bad people do.” And if you try to institute these voter suppression laws just because you can, everyone’s kinda going to know you’re the bad guys. And there’s a good chance your opponents will be able to paint you as people who hate voters, hate democracy and have to cheat to win. And those kind of attacks tend to work when it’s super obvious that it’s true.

But there’s a way to do it. And you’re about to see the true evil genius of the Republican mind because as my friend Ronen said, “They’re monsters, but they’re not stupid.”

So how do you make people okay with voter suppression laws? You solve a problem that doesn’t exist! Voter Fraud.

This trap is so elegant and simple, I actually fell right into it in when it first started circulating in 2008. The logic is beautiful. It implicitly only asks you only three questions:

  • Isn’t Fraud a bad thing?
  • Doesn’t almost everyone have an ID (cause you need IDs for almost everything)?
  • Wouldn’t it be good to stop Fraud?

And to believe this frame all you have to do is answer YES to those three questions and you’ve given Republicans the right to bring back Voter Suppression! That’s correct, the Republicans painted themselves as the hero, protecting democracy from people who might want to pretend to vote as someone else. Sure, they lost a few old people who’d vote Republican in this scam, but overall the math works really well in their favor. Plus it’s incredibly psychologically appealing.

Now as a Democrat you’re probably screaming inside. Because:

  • All evidence shows that voter fraud is a non-existent problem
  • Lots of people of color, poor folks and elderly (aka Democrat constituents) don’t have IDs
  • Lots of these states make it very difficult to get an ID
  • The laws around which IDs are intentionally confusing

As well as a million other technocratic that point to the fact that this is just Voter Suppression wrapped up in shiny new outfit. But here’s the problem and another cardinal rule of behavioral politics:

  • You CAN NOT defeat a strong frame with evidence.

It’s basically impossible.

The Voter ID frame accomplishes something they want (suppression of Democratic voters), it taps into their innate love of “law and order” and allows them to view themselves as the good guys. Plus it annoys liberals, which is an extra bonus.


Countering The Voter Fraud Framework

The framework of preventing voter fraud is like a shield for the conservative mind and throwing out facts and figures is like throwing small rocks. It ain’t going to work. The only way to break through is to throw a bunch of figurative molotov cocktails. I see a few options.

The technocratic solution is using the courts to classify these laws as illegal. This then puts Voter ID laws back into “Voter ID = Voter Suppression = Bad” framework. The problem is that it’s slow, Republicans have control of lots of courts, and Republicans can just frame that work as “activist judges” or the suppression of “states rights.” This work absolutely needs to be done, but it’s going to a very slow road.

The bigger psychological problem is that using the courts in this case is a defensive move rather than an offensive move. And therefore it reads as weak. Republicans have broken the “Voter ID Laws = Racism” frame. So in order to compete in the psychological realm and provide good theater for voters, Democrats (both leadership and individuals) need to create a different frame. They need something that generates feelings and raw emotion because these feelings energize core constituents and help motivate the people who are willing to switch (or simply engage) to the more exciting team.

My suggestion is that if you’re going to enter into this debate, instead of trying to explain that voter ID laws are racist or bad try the following re-frame:

  • Republicans only use voter ID laws because they know they’d lose if they didn’t suppress the vote.

It’s a little long, but this tactic accomplishes several things at once:

  • You’re insulting their perceived “masculinity” which automatically provokes a challenge
  • You’re implying they couldn’t win a fair fight which means they’re weaker than you (and Republicans loathe any perception of weakness)
  • You’re re-establishing that Voter ID laws are voter suppression and not voter fraud.
  • And when they claim it’s about voter fraud, you can lay into them about how it’s not actually a problem (which is an argument they can’t win cause it’s not true).

A simpler and more aggressive version (which is appropriate depending on the audience) is to say that:

  • Republicans support Voter ID laws because they hate Democracy

This one is a little more of a molotov cocktail and not quite as directly related to voter suppression. It calls into question republican patriotism, which is more of a fight. But if you’re more of scrapper and your target audience responds to more aggressive theater, try it out and see what happens.

The art of political jiu jitsu is using your opponent’s own values against them.


Will this re-frame solve of the voter ID question solve the core problems of the Democratic party? Absolutely not. Trump has exposed that the Democratic party as a whole has a broken frame. And if you want to understand why our frame is broken read this

The purpose of this writing was to introduce the concept of frames. Understanding frames is going to be essential to bringing the Democrats back from the brink. I also wanted to introduce the ideas of Republican traps. I’ll be going deeper into that in the coming writings.

The one good thing to note is that conservatives don’t really change strategy too much. They just do what works in slightly new ways. If you analyze the past, you can see exactly what they’re going to do and cut them off at the pass.

Future Notes:

Thanks so much for reading all the way to the end! This is going to be the longest one by far :).

Suggested Strategic Thinking Media:

Prepare for the Regime Change: By N. Turkuler Isikse

How Fascism Accumulates Power By Testing People by Jonathan Korman

How A Country Slides into Despotism a 1946 Short

How Democrats Killed their Populist Soul By Matt Stoler

Strategic Book Club Recommendation

Rules for Radicals By Saul Alinsky — This book is brilliant. The linked version is a free PDF, but you can get for e-readers or in print.

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