Republicans are evil and hate black people, and the current push for tougher voter identification laws is a modern-day poll tax on the level of a vast, Right-wing, neo-Confederate conspiracy. Or something.
That is the gist of the “documentary,” Fault Lines: Disenfranchised in America, hosted by Al Jazeera English presenter Zeina Awad. The 25-minute movie is part of Al Jazeera English’s Fault Lines series, which focuses on the United States’ role in the world. Al Jazeera (from the Arabic for “The Island,” an abbreviation of “The [Arabian] Peninsula”) is an independent broadcaster based in Qatar.
Disenfranchised in America largely covers Republican-led efforts to implement new laws that would, theoretically, make it more difficult for people to commit voter fraud, that is, to make sure that only legal, registered voters are showing up at the polls and casting their ballots. Opponents of such laws argue that voter fraud is a minor or even nonexistent issue and that because certain groups, particularly black voters, are more likely to lack government-issued identification than others, the push for new laws amounts to suppression of Democratic votes. (You can view a map of the various voter ID laws and track news related to new laws being passed — and challenged — here.)
The film largely frames the issue as a matter of black and white, both racially and in terms of the stark contrast drawn between voter ID opponents (Saints) and proponents (Satan). I knew I was in for a clusterfark of demagoguery when Awad referenced the controversial 2000 Presidential election debacle in Florida. She notes that many black, Democratic voters were purged from the rolls and that the Supreme Court’s conservative and conservative-leaning members narrowly voted to stop the recount, thus handing the State and the Presidency to George W. Bush. She did not mention, however, that every major network (even Fox News) called Florida for Vice President Al Gore that night, some before all of the polls were closed. Florida is in both the Central and Eastern Time Zones, and the panhandle, located in Central, is traditionally conservative. The early call undoubtedly hurt Republican turnout, with people leaving long voting lines having been told Florida was no longer being contested.
The lion’s share of interviews are with those who oppose voter ID laws, with minimal voice given to the other side, save a snippet of a discussion with the Florida Attorney General and a quick exchange with Governor Rick Scott, as well as a Tennessee gun club owner and some random Republican and Tea Party rally attendees. (This is the point where I make a minor concession: The gun club owner actually made the best argument for the pro-voter ID side, noting that it is far more difficult to register a gun than to get a driver’s licence, so he supported using a gun registration ID at the polls. Also, his name is Whiskey, which is awesome.)
Frankly, it would have been interesting if Fault Lines had attempted to interview Florida’s Lieutenant Governor, Jennifer Carroll. As a black Republican executive (and most noteworthy, the first black female State executive in American history), she would have been in a unique position in a State where voter ID laws might hurt black turnout. Maybe the producers of Fault Lines did attempt to set up an interview with her or similarly interesting and relevant figures and were turned down, but we simply don’t know and frankly, the unfair tone set by the film leads me to believe we should not give them the benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, there are true hard cases where such laws could unfairly affect voters, and many Republicans are undoubtedly rubbing their hands at the thought that Mitt Romney could benefit in close States with strict voter ID requirements. But it’s not like Fault Lines could not have run the numbers to find out exactly how voter ID laws affect turnout, rather than producing a melodramatic, racially inflammatory smear job. Liberal statistician Nate Silver ran an excellent, comprehensive article examining the effect such laws have and found that, yes, Republicans do tend to benefit, but not by much. In fact, certain Republican constituencies, such as white voters without college degrees, would be negatively affected by such laws.
The film also ignores the very real problem of voter registration fraud (which is, admittedly, not the same as voting fraud but still a related issue), nor that of the practice of buying and selling votes. These things are happening, but in the world of Fault Lines, they do not exist.
Also disturbing was the film turning a blind eye to the blatant political campaigning occurring from the pulpits of the churches featured in the film. Churches are tax-exempt institutions, and for a clergyman to endorse a President openly, as one minister is shown doing, from the pulpit is for that church to risk losing that status. (And no, a church engaging in political activism, such as protesting abortion or, yes, voter ID laws, is not the same thing as clergy using their preaching platforms to endorse political candidates.)
Towards the close of the film, our intrepid host manages to find one doofus protesting with the Tea Party, who incorrectly asserts that voting is a privilege, not a right, as if her ignorance is dispositive of the collective stupidity of the entire Tea Party movement and/or the evil and racism of the movement to strengthen voter ID laws, in general.
Our soi-disant journalist Zeina Awad says she “like[s] asking tough questions” — but apparently only of one side. This film was not journalism. It was a Democratic love letter tarted up as “speaking truth to power.”
And please note: I am not discounting the very real possibility that strict voter ID laws can constitute an unconstitutional encumbrance on members of certain voter demographics. I am not discounting the possibility that such laws are passed for partisan political purposes, rather than as an honest attempt at reducing fraud. I am not even discounting the possibility that there is racial animus motivating support for such laws, amongst certain individuals. (Although, given that almost three-quarters of voters support voter ID at the polls, I find it difficult to believe that charge is true in the majority of cases. I also find it ironic that many States do not require photo ID to vote, but the NAACP did so for those attending Attorney General Eric Holder’s in Texas, which Holder’s Justice Department is suing for its voter ID law.)
But having the moral high ground does not give one licence to dismiss the other side so easily, especially when one is charged with the very real burden of disinterested journalistic integrity. If voter ID laws are so onerous, then give the other side equal time to respond to critics’ charges, and their arguments should fall apart under honest scrutiny, just as the other side’s should hold up under the same questioning.
As it stands, Fault Lines is a sorry attempt to cast one side of a legitimate debate as the villain, by portraying it as ignorant and misguided, at best, and sinister and diabolical, at worst. It only adds further insult to injury that Al Jazeera’s audience is largely non-American, so one can only imagine how poorly the USA comes off to a foreign audience. If Al Jazeera wants American providers to carry its channel, it should take some lessons in how to do journalism justice, not pass off propaganda as honest reporting.