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Voter Fraud Fearmongering Formulated to Defraud and Disenfranchise…Don’t Believe Me? Find Out More for Yourself in this Fanciful Post!

October 30, 2012

Allegations of rampant voter fraud have somehow become part of mainstream political discourse in America. This is a pretty recent development, I think; I feel like I’d always heard jokes about logging votes for dead people or whatever, but I don’t remember feeling like it was something people were actually taking seriously until now. But lately, I feel like it’s suddenly a huge deal. Non-anecdotal case in point: about a week ago, a number of billboards related to voter fraud popped up in Ohio and Wisconsin, two crucial swing states.

The billboards are a total sketch-fest; for starters, they were funded anonymously by “a private family foundation,” in an alleged oversight or alleged mistake despite Clear Channel’s alleged rules against such things that are allegedly not the sort of rules that anyone would flaunt on purpose for alleged ideological reasons or because the candidate who allegedly stands to benefit from the alleged effect of these billboards used to be the CEO of a company that’s a freakin’ majority shareholder in Clear Channel. Also, they popped up primarily in minority and university neighborhoods—typically Democratic strongholds. So, for whatever reason, people who are more likely to vote Democrat are pretty clearly the intended audience. And although the billboards have just recently been taken down (but only because people bitched, and not because they’re really really sketchy—even more on this below), I think the billboards illustrate some interesting things about the public discussion of the voter fraud issue—an issue that really seems to break down nicely along ideological lines.

See, when I say that people are suddenly taking voter fraud seriously, I mean that conservatives are suddenly taking voter fraud seriously. And they’re taking it seriously in a big way. As this article in the New Yorker argues, voter fraud entered the popular consciousness through the efforts of multiple conservatives and conservative activist groups, many of which have links to the Tea Party. Liberals argue that this sudden focus on voter fraud, manifested through things like stricter voter ID laws (but not in my dear state! At least kinda sorta…small victories, I guess?) and these billboards, serves as a form of voter intimidation. As mentioned above, the billboards were concentrated in neighborhoods whose inhabitants tend to vote Democratic. The criticism, then, is that these billboards are designed to scare people in those neighborhoods out of even trying to vote for fear of doing it wrong and being sent to prison.

The counterargument, summed up in the NPR article by Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesperson Nathan Conrad, is basically that these billboards “simply state what the law is in the state of Wisconsin…And that being said, I’m not sure how it would intimidate anyone who was not planning on voting illegally going into the election season.” So, basically, they can’t be designed to intimidate minority voters because if those voters weren’t planning on doing anything wrong to begin with, they would ignore the billboards.

But honestly, come on. We know better. There’s no way to see a billboard like that and just assume that it doesn’t apply to you. When we see something like that billboard, it seems to be addressing us, no matter who we are and no matter if we’ve done anything wrong. This is in part because we always expect to be under suspicion of having done something wrong. Let me put it to you this way—if you’re driving on the highway, even if you know you’re not speeding or driving dangerously, what happens to your heart rate if you see a cop coming up behind you with the sirens and lights on? We’ve all internalized suspicion, so we behave as though it’s warranted.

And all this alarm over voter fraud plays right into that internalized suspicion. These billboards, the tougher laws, everything…sure, someone planning on trying to vote twice using their dead grandpa’s name might see the billboards and be like “oh crap,” but for the rest of us with no such intention, it sends the message that we’re being watched, so we better not mess this up or there will be severe consequences. Now imagine how much more powerful the reaction must be in communities where the expectation is that interactions with the law will be less than positive.

But what do these billboards emphasize? The law and consequences. Represented visually by the gavel slamming, and in text explicitly spelling out the consequences of committing voter fraud. But, they don’t really tell you what voter fraud is. Or direct you to where you can find out. Or provide you with resources for learning about how to be absolutely certain you don’t end up on the wrong side of the law. They just say “see this gavel slamming down like that crazy lightning ball they have in the Klingon courtroom in Star Trek VI? Yeah, that could be your conviction! You too could be sent to the dilithium mines on the penal asteroid of Rura Penthe!” The billboards emphasize consequences over information about preventing the crime. And as any teacher or parent knows, why would someone choose to emphasize consequences instead of cheerfully sharing information? That’s right. To scare people for the purpose of maintaining control. And when these scare tactics are being deployed in neighborhoods that tend to vote one particular way…well…

So anyone who says that making a big hubbub about voter fraud is intended as a public service to inform people of what’ll happen if they were planning any funny stuff is, frankly, lying. Of course, this isn’t to say that we at The Silver Tongue want people running around committing voter fraud all willy-nilly like. I haven’t checked with the rest of the staff on this one, but I feel pretty confident saying we’re all for transparent and legitimate elections…right guys? Except for maybe Doug Cloud, because that guy is bad news. It is to say, however, that we need to be wary of scare tactics posing as efforts to lend to that legitimacy. So what do you guys think? How do you feel looking at these billboards? Do you see yourself in their intended audience, even if you weren’t necessarily planning on doing anything wrong come election day?

If you want to know more:

  • My argument above is influenced by Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation. Althusser argued, in short, that ideologies constitute the identity of individuals; the individual becomes the subject of the ideology by paying attention as though he were. You can read Althusser’s own explanation of the theory here.
  • The part of my argument where I argue that we all act as though we are always already under suspicion also draws on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, wherein Foucault describes modern developments (particularly the panopticon) in the penal system (this time NOT on the penal asteroid of Rura Penthe) as, in part, creating a society in which fear of surveillance leads to internalized self-surveillance.
  • Doug thinks that the whole voter fraud thing targeting minority neighborhoods might be guided by a similar philosophy as the self-deportation approach to illegal immigration. I’m inclined to agree.
  • I know the Star Trek VI clip above doesn’t actually show the thunderball in use. But y’all know what I mean. That is, unless you haven’t seen Star Trek VI, which is really something I’d keep to myself around here if I were you.
  • Yes yes, I know that a thunderball is a different thing entirely. I REFER TO THINGS BY WHATEVER TITLE I CHOOSE, AS IS MY WONT AND MY PRIVILEGE.
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8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2012 6:10 pm

    From a functional linguistics perspective (the only way I can think these days), this is actually really interesting. “Voter fraud” is presented as the “known” info (and as you said it is actually not known at all). Also it “is” a felony, not “can be”. I am not an expert in multi-modal analysis but to me the dark color and the hammer also constitute power (as opposed to billboards for Dunkin’ Donuts). Wonder if anyone has done any systematic analysis about billboards – how power/solidarity are created or reduced, and particularly in a society where mobility heavily relies upon highways.

    • Matt Zebrowski permalink*
      October 30, 2012 9:11 pm

      Wenhao, interesting grammatical observation there with the known info! I think that the particulars of voter fraud ARE unknown to most Americans…other than a vague sense that it somehow involves logging a vote that you’re not legally allowed to make. I think that treating the particulars of voter fraud as known info lends a little credence to my point; if the definition of voter fraud is treated as known info, it makes it harder to question and it marks audience members who DON’T know it…which might make them feel even MORE intimidated.

      I think you’re right about the dark color, too. I don’t really know if I think it connotes power, but without a doubt it certainly connotes serious business. And the gavel? You’re spot on, no question.

      I’m unaware of any academic work on billboards, but it’s always fun to drive across the state and see how the farther you get from Pittsburgh, the more likely they are to say stuff about Jesus or make outrageous claims about liberals. Then it kinda tapers off the closer you get to Philly.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. November 8, 2012 8:08 pm

    I find your post **sketchy** so someone should take it down immediately before someone get’s scared and alters their behavior because of it. Who knows who’s really behind this so-called blog, it could be ANYBODY!!!!.. And adults can’t be expected to govern their own emotions and reject garbage that they see on a website or on the side of a freeway! They need to be protected!!!!! Police!!! Police!!!! Help!!!! This sketchy person’s tried to scare me from using the words “Voter Fraud” and now every time I try to say it, I break out into a cold sweat because I don’t want anyone to think I’m an evil Tea Partier… I think I have PTSD!!!! HELP!!!

  3. November 8, 2012 8:09 pm

    (Oh, and I forgot to add a silly face after that) 8-p

  4. Matt Zebrowski permalink*
    November 13, 2012 11:51 am

    Well, doctorate in trolling or not, I’m going to continue to talk to you as though you’re serious. That editorial you linked to is gross and offensive to me. I hope I didn’t come off as saying anything of the sort. I think the billboards I wrote about were misleading, shady, and borderline racist/classist. Just like I think that the anti-Muslim video in question is hateful and gay-bashing. But that doesn’t mean I’m advocating censorship here.

    That and, for your information, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.

    I’m stayin’. Finishin’ my coffee.

    • November 13, 2012 8:12 pm

      I’m just glad that there are liberals around to defend adults who are otherwise too stupid to protect their right to vote from advertisements. Though I do think it might say something about you that you think minorities are especially at risk here… YOU are smart enough to figure out that someone is trying to manipulate them, but the average minority isn’t.

      Got it, wink, wink 😉

      Not sure what you mean by “sketchy” and “shady”, though the implication is that something illegal is going on… which of course illegal behavior must be stopped… sure sounds like you want to block it (speech) – maybe its just me.

      But seriously, this is taking a way too serious tone. I love your blog, good to at least see some serious thinking going on.

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