FORT WAYNE – The right to vote is so closely connected to protecting the right to having an honest vote that the two subjects cannot be separated.

Furthermore, it is always a partisan issue because the Democrats jockey for perceived advantages (which vary by time and place) and so do Republicans. To make claims that one party is more political on the issue merely demonstrates one’s personal partisanship. A policy so potentially critical to political success is hardly conducive to the “moral high ground” that both sides claim.

Before plunging further into this “hot” discussion, let me state a couple of what I think are obvious positions, though many Republicans dispute the first and many Democrats dispute the second one.

1.) The 2020 election may have some corruption, as all national ones do, but it was certainly less than in 1960 (as in, far less) and there is no proof that it was any worse than the 2016 election in which Democrats questioned the legitimacy because of Russian meddling. The attempts to overthrow a certified election by county election boards, all 50 states and over 50 court cases was, in my opinion, an attempt to steal an election. Had it succeeded, how to conduct a free election in the future would be a very serious problem. These mythic claims that it was “stolen” are a serious Republican problem. The Democrats trumped up the Russian problem to undermine the 2016 election, but they accepted the certified results. It is one thing to argue whether there was cheating, it is another to make unproven claims and then try to actually steal a constitutionally certified election.

2.) The voting changes in 2020 were driven by problems related to COVID-19 and not accepted for long-term change. To make it that way means those who advocated the change were deliberately deceitful. This is the false premise of Democrats. If there is not agreement on this fundamental fact, how can there ever again be an agreement to handle emergency situations? Are we going to make every issue one in which the winner changes all our laws?  Fundamental changes need to have some degree of consensus to last. Jamming things through is a hollow victory. It also fractures trust and stability.  

The Republicans need to grant that some of the changes addressed some problems. For example, in Indiana the 6 to 6 voting time limitation would be completely absurd if the relaxation of absentee and alternative early voting hadn’t been steadily expanded without much fanfare. It existed prior to two-parent working families being the norm, before suburban voters in particular had long commutes, and back when workers had more stable 9 to 5 hours. These changes arguably helped Republicans in Indiana more than it helped the Democrats.

Among the overwhelming majority of Americans who do not think that COVID-19 was a plot to defeat Donald Trump there was wide agreement that making it easier to vote was a fair and wise decision. However, it did raise other concerns vital to a free democracy. Some, in fact, could lead to abuse. And, if continued, would certainly lead to problems.

One of the discussions that I had in Baghdad, Iraq, (with a variation in Afghanistan) forced me to reflect more thoroughly about U.S. politics. A small group of us had a meeting with Provisional Authority leader Paul Bremer and representatives of the Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish factions prior to the first election there. When I asked them if they thought that people would feel free to cast a vote against whoever their tribal or religious leader was (in other words, was it an intimidation-free, secret ballot), all three representatives said that they “hoped so.”

I pressed the Shi’a leader hardest for two reasons: They were the largest faction and the representative was the top staffer and direct representative of Ali al-Sistani. Finally, after the third re-wording of my question, he replied with some exasperation: “How would I know? We have never had a free election before.”

In reality, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan elections were only superficially free. Not surprisingly, the people did what their regional leaders said, and they did not really have a freedom to choose. The right to privacy of a ballot is rather unique to western countries with few exceptions. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in Tripoli, took great pains to assert how popular he was and how he won nearly 100% in free elections. Saddam Hussein made the same claims.

In the U.S., even with private voting booths and voter ID, we have long struggled with organized cheating. To pretend that absentee balloting, especially combined with longer lead times, doesn’t risk less true independence is absurd. If ballots are allowed to be “collected” more than one at a time, it compounds the risk of true fraud – especially if those who desire to win by cheating have a longer time in which to establish systematic manipulation.

But there are things that can be done. It was sickening to see examples, not uncommon, of African-Americans lined up for six hours in urban cities, whereas in more white areas lines seldom topped an hour or two (and often were less). There is a gross imbalance in accessibility of polling places in some areas.

Part of the problem is also the increasing difficulty of getting sufficient election day workers, making sure they are trained, and getting poll-watchers whose goal is fairness, not intimidation. In other words, there are likely financial costs to maintaining true fairness to cast a free vote not wiped out by cheaters while making sure that only qualified voters can vote.

Counting the results should not be delayed from the public until all votes are in. Report precincts, publicly, as they are tallied. It would reduce the potential (which happened regularly, including in Indiana in my lifetime) when both parties sometimes held back votes to deny the other side knowing exactly what “number” they needed to win.

Allowing people to vote twice – absentee and then in person – is just stupid. It makes identification and privacy harder, makes counting accuracy rife for chaos, and a host of other reasons. We should try to make cheating harder, not easier.

A similar challenge, weighted with partisan debate, rages around requiring identification. In the past, especially in the South, to deprive Black voters who had the right to vote the opportunity to cast a vote.  In the North, it has been used as an intimidation method. When that happens, people who do it should be prosecuted. We seem to be obsessed with bullying but not of voter intimidation.

But the fact is that you must prove that you are the person you claim to be. That must be verified. You have to meet the legal qualifications to vote, including, for example, you must be alive. That wasn’t always true in many places, with Chicago being a prime example. Children can’t vote. Change the rules through our process if you think some identification requirements are wrong. But we require identification for about everything else in life these days.

That said, some accommodation should be discussed as forms of alternative ID if there are other ways to authenticate it, but people who are not eligible to vote should not vote. Many lower income people move around a lot. They may not own a car. There are some things that can’t be accommodated but either some flexibility will need to occur, or irresponsible changes will lead to chaos. Stonewalling reasonable points will ultimately result in very bad final resolution.

We can have reasonable discussions on voting rights, especially legal participation by voters who are underrepresented. Many Americans, on all sides, simply believe that fairness is now impossible. That is a bigger and bigger threat to our nation. 

Souder is a former Republican Member of Congress.