Following the 2010 elections, newly empowered Republican majorities in several states began enacting measures designed to suppress voting among demographic segments that were not likely to vote for the GOP. The requirement for a state-issued picture ID is one such measure but there were others. Still, if the objective of these measures was to stop certain groups of people from voting altogether then they weren’t as effective as their proponents probably hoped.
But GOP leaders might find a reason to be encouraged right here in the Sunshine State. In pursuit of its unabashedly partisan ends, Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature seems to be developing a secret plan for ultimate victory. In fact, it may be on its way to getting potential Democratic voters—across a wide swath of demographic segments—to stop coming to the polls not just for one or two elections but for a generation or more to come.
The most recent clue to what’s going on is the erupting controversy about an amendment to the state constitution that was passed by voters last year. Seventy five percent of Florida voters voted for Amendment 1 as a mechanism to force the state to allocate funds for the acquisition and improvement of endangered land and water. (For comparison, pick whatever presidential landslide you’d like—Johnson vs. Goldwater, Nixon vs. McGovern, Reagan vs. Mondale. None is anywhere near 75 percent.) You’d think that such overwhelming support would be difficult to ignore, especially since it was expressed in the guise of a constitutional amendment. Game, set, match for conservationists, right?
Not exactly. I’ll let the Miami Herald tell the rest of the story:
Even though the measure created a $700 million pot of money (about $10 billion over 25 years) that taxpayers want to use for conservation and acquisition, legislators have made clear they are going to spend only a small fraction of that imminent windfall on buying land to protect. Proposals mentioned from the House and Senate this week amount to just $26 million and $57 million, respectively, to buy land.
In other words, the voters’ clear intent and overwhelming support is being ignored by a legislature that’s determined (as one friend put it) “to do everything possible to continue selling our natural heritage to the highest bidder.”
In civics class, such a scenario would be outrageous. In Florida, though, it’s just business as usual. Voters here have clearly expressed themselves over the years years on a variety of issues including education funding, class sizes, and fair districting. But in every instance, the Florida legislature has chosen to ignore the will of the voters, often expressed in numbers almost as overwhelming as the Amendment 1 vote.
So, Florida obviously suffers from bad government but how does that then become voter suppression? Through a psychological mechanism known as learned helplessness.
By definition, learned helplessness occurs when someone learns that he or she cannot control their situation and therefore stops taking action to avoid the negative negative consequences. Said differently, learned helplessness reflects a person’s conscious or unconscious decision to stop trying because they believe that trying doesn’t help. It’s what happens when you believe that you have no control or influence over your outcomes.
Returning, then, to the subject of voting in Florida, provides some important context for speculating on what effect it will have on progressive activism when one successful effort after another to mobilize voters—even stunningly successful ones like the Amendment 1 campaign—yield results that are indistinguishable from failures.
As the will of the voters on progressive initiatives gets blatantly and repeatedly ignored, the most likely scenario is troubling. The outcome that the GOP-majority legislature would clearly prefer is that progressive activists just stop trying to effect change and progressive voters would simply stop voting. And if that happens, it has the potential to reach a level of effectiveness that no previous voter suppression scheme ever hoped to approach.
If Florida legislators are allowed to bully voters into a state of learned helplessness then they’ll have achieved the Holy Grail of Voter Suppression. A deliberately cultivated case of learned helplessness could mean that potentially progressive votes might not be suppressed for just an election cycle or two. They could conceivably disappear for a generation or more. And if it works in Florida, the cynical technique would certainly get fast-tracked in other GOP-controlled states.
There’s a point at which partisan wrangling turns into something else, something more problematic. The Constitution says, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…” When voters clearly and emphatically express their will and are then ignored, then those voters aren’t getting a republican form of government (though they are getting a Republican form of government). That’s bad for Florida and, if it’s allowed to stand, it will be bad for the country.
Right now, the political directionality of this issue points to an attack on progressivism but this is much bigger than simply a partisan issue. The credibility of our governance is at stake. Voters need to unmistakably see that their participation can make a difference. If we tolerate a system in which participants learn helplessness—that their efforts ultimately don’t matter—then the real problem isn’t that the GOP might win. The real problem is that ultimately we would all lose.