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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lane Madsen: When words fail us …

The EMT arrived on scene first, surveyed the crunched car and driver and shouted to the approaching firefighter to “bring me 4x4s!” The firefighter returned with chunks of 4x4 timber, part of the equipment for stabilizing vehicles. The EMT just stared. “Not cribbing, I need gauze. He’s bleeding.”

Our political polarization is driven by an increasing failure to communicate. We spar like irrational children not because we aren’t using our words, but because we are. Too often we are using different definitions, confusing gauze bandaging with wooden cribbing.

Take “voter suppression,” for example. It’s the latest catch-all insult every time a Republican legislature changes rules to improve election integrity and confidence. It is usually paired with “racist,” once usefully descriptive but too often used as if it were a legitimate synonym for Republican. “Voter suppression” is heading into the same rhetorical scrap heap.

President Biden was awarded Four Pinocchios by the Washington Post for fibbing when he said Georgia’s new election integrity law “ends voting hours early,” claiming voter suppression. Biden also called the new election rules “Jim Crow 2.0” and a return to actively suppressing Black citizens from voting.

Horsefeathers. Georgia permanently adopted some of the emergency innovations used in 2020 and clarified its election rules. The new law includes early voting in person, no-excuse absentee ballots, weekend voting and ballot drop boxes in places where they can be supervised to reassure voters there is no fraud. Poll workers can provide snacks and water for anyone waiting in line, just not outside groups. To determine if a mailed-in ballot is a legal vote, voters will write in the number off their state ID or last four of a Social Security number instead of relying on often illegible signatures.

You know where you can’t vote early in person, get an absentee ballot without an excuse, or vote on a weekend? Delaware. Groups can’t hand out gifts of any kind (presumably including food and water) to voters in line there either – a nearly universal U.S. rule to prevent electioneering at the polls. And you must have valid ID with you to vote in person. Still waiting for Biden to call out Delaware or any other blue state for similar rules.

“Voter suppression” is either a cynically polarizing political insult or we have two definitions. There’s the historical understanding, like the violence of Jim Crow Democrats in 1956 against civil rights activists in Alabama. That’s not happening now. Or something like the case brought against the New Black Panther Party in 2008 for intimidating voters in line at a Philadelphia polling place. That’s exceedingly rare, even rarer than prosecutable voter fraud.

Then there’s the fuzzy progressive definition. A website called the Voting Rights Alliance offers 61 forms of “voter suppression” in a disjointed list stretching from “strict voter photo ID laws” to “running out of ballots” and “long lines.” In November 2008, people waited as much as two hours in King County to cast their vote. In November 2020, there were lines in Renton just to turn in ballots at a drop box station. That wasn’t voter suppression nor was it Jim Crow. It was poor planning.

The Center for American Progress calls voter ID of any kind a form of “voter suppression.” But according to a 2008-2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected source boringly focused on numbers, voter ID laws “have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age or party affiliation” and “no effect on fraud – actual or perceived.” It’s a non-issue.

If by voter suppression I mean physical intimidation but not rules (because we need rules) and you mean removing rules so no voter ever feels shut out (but all rules are a challenge to somebody), then we aren’t going to have a productive conversation. I’m asking for a framework for maintaining integrity with reasonable expectations for individual responsibility. I’ll be asking for gauze while you hand me a chunk of wood.

And now another word is starting down the path to polarization. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ “2021 Report Card of America’s Infrastructure” tracks 17 categories, and has been rating infrastructure since 1988. It provides a non-partisan, useful database of information for objective decision-making at both state and federal levels. And as of President Biden’s April 7th speech, the “idea of infrastructure has always evolved to meet the aspiration of American people and their needs and it’s evolving again today.” We are losing an objectively useful word for civil (pun intended) conversation to a boundary-free emotional appeal to spend money on lots of good stuff.

To oppose the Democrats’ evolved “infrastructure” proposals will likely get Republicans called “racists” who support “voter suppression” and want children to drink lead-tainted water.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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