Friday, October 29, 2004


What's worse: Allowing something bad to happen or stopping something good from happening?

I think this is what it comes down to: would you rather imprison an innocent man or free a guilty one? Would you rather permit a disfranchised felon to vote illegally or prohibit an eligible voter from voting legally?

I think this is one of the things that distinguishes liberals from conservatives, Democrats from Republicans. Obviously I don't have any survey data to back up what I think, and equally obviously there are going to be spillovers, especially at the margins. But I think this is a very good test of attitude.

For the most part (with probably many exceptions, of course), liberals (and, by extension, many Democrats) would prefer to keep innocent people out of prison, even if that means letting some guilty people walk as well. Conservatives (and, by extension, many Republicans) feel it is necessary to lock up all the guilty, even if that means occasionally an innocent person will be wrongly imprisoned. Liberals probably tend to overestimate how many guilty people are wrongly acquitted by the system, and it can be proven that conservatives definitely underestimate the number of the innocent wrongfully convicted.

By the same token, liberals and Democrats mostly prefer to let as many people vote as possible, acknowledging that there will be some voter fraud, but thinking it's better to let a few who shouldn't vote, vote anyway, rather than disfranchise even one single truly eligible voter. Conservatives and Republicans appear to think that no one who is not eligible to vote should ever be permitted to do so, no matter how many eligible voters must be barred from the polls in order to ensure that no voter fraud occurs.

We don't know for a fact how many criminals are walking free, how many innocent people are in prison; how many fraudulent voters are slipping past safeguards to cast a ballot, how many eligible voters are being wrongly kept from the polls. In the absence of verifiable, reliable data, all we have are our beliefs and attitudes. As a liberal and a Democrat, I prefer to err on the side of freedom: freedom from false imprisonment, freedom from being denied the vote.

I understand the opposing attitude: letting criminals go unpunished violates our belief in justice (but doesn't imprisoning an innocent man do so even more strongly? Although the retort then is, I don't believe innocent people are convicted, or at least not in sufficient numbers to justify letting the guilty go free). If people who shouldn't vote are permitted to do so, that dilutes the electoral power of truly eligible voters (but doesn't unfairly keeping eligible voters away make our system less democratic? Again, the retort will be, I simply don't believe we're disfranchising very many truly eligible voters).

There is also the observation that a lot of Republican efforts to supposedly counter electoral fraud are simply naked attempts to suppress the vote in minority, Democratic areas. Republicans will deny this, of course, but what do you expect? They will insist that Democrats aren't trying to broaden the franchise, merely win by committing massive fraud. I will deny that, of course, while admitting that any large-scale registration drive is inevitably going to sweep up some who aren't eligible. That doesn't imply intentional fraud, however, merely unavoidable mistakes, some sloppiness and overreaching in an attempt to reach as many former nonvoters as possible.

Again, it's a question of attitude. I would rather risk some fraud in an attempt to get as many people to vote as possible. Just as I would rather risk letting an occasional guilty person get away with it if that's what it takes to make sure that no innocent person is ever imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Maybe I'm a sap. I can live with that.
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