I try not to get too into partisan political discussions with people outside my circle of immediate family and friends. It's not that I dislike discussing politics – quite the contrary. It's more that with people I don't know I fear the discussion descending into a bitter and very personal dispute that has little to do with the political differences that prompted it.
This kind of thing has happened before, often enough so that now I think twice. I did not initiate these disputes, nor did I seek to engage them once they started, which led to name calling, expletives and one time someone walking out of a room, but never to fisticuffs. I think reasonable people can disagree and engage in lively conversation that can illuminate points both parties may not have considered in forming their views. For instance, my brother and I disagree quite often about politics. We've interrupted one another and we have raised our voices.
Invariably, though, the longer we talk the closer we find we are in principle, if not policy. Too often, I think, conversations either stop at the disagreement or veer at that point into the unnecessarily personal.
Recently a friend of mine and I were discussing the election. He brought up voter fraud and how it's more prevalent than people realize and how he thinks everyone should have to show photo identification to vote. I said, "You're reading John Fund's new book, aren't you?" Yes, he said, he had just started it.
So I said, "You'll have to let me know if Fund spends any time on voter suppression while he's writing about voter fraud. Because I think they're equally detrimental to democracy."
My friend wasn't as familiar with the problem of voter suppression – you know, distributing fliers in a neighborhood saying the election has been moved to Wednesday, or saying you can't vote without photo ID – so the conversation turned again to requiring voters to present a photo ID. Now, I get the argument behind this. Photo ID is prevalent in society and it seems like a simple thing to require someone to prove they are who they say they are.
In effect I already have to do this when I sign for my ballot. The poll workers compare the signatures. If I tried to impersonate my dad, for instance, they'd flag me in a second. Apart from the fact he lives in Oregon, nobody can copy his scrawl. Believe me, I tried in high school.
Adding the photo requirement would seem to be just another layer of security. However, photo IDs can be forged pretty easily. All of the September 11, 2001, hijackers had photo IDs. In 11th grade, my friend Andy made himself an ID that showed he was 23. He was 17. Andy bought us all a lot of beer in high school, and collected surcharges that helped him pay to refurbish an old Jeep. Photo IDs are not the be-all, end-all of voter fraud prevention.
What about a national ID card, my friend asked? That doesn't seem so onerous. In the United Arab Emirates, where he lives and works as a teacher, all 30 million residents must have one. A Pakistani friend of his told him all Pakistanis have to show their national ID prior to voting.
"Are you really comparing Pakistan's voting procedures with those of the United States?" I asked.
No, he said, the point was most other countries have a national ID card. It's accepted as common practice. Well, I said, I live in America and I don't want a national ID card. It seems like a huge government undertaking and a substantive government intrusion. I have a driver's license, but I choose to have a driver's license because I choose to drive.
I said I thought the problem of voter fraud was minuscule in comparison with the proposed remedies – like using a cannon to kill an ant. Plus, I said, I should be free to live without ID if I so choose. If I want to live in a cabin in the mountains and ride a horse to town for supplies and pay with cash, I should be able to do so. And I should still be able to vote. Maybe a better check would be fingerprint checks, or retinal scans at the voting booth, I said, half-joking. Those would be impractical, he replied.
He said again he didn't think a national ID was an intrusion and that requiring photo ID to vote was better than nothing, which is what we had now. Then he said we'd just have to agree to disagree. I agreed.
Then we spent another 10 or 15 minutes talking about his classes there, his girlfriend, his brother's visit last month and a few other things. When we hung up there was no name calling, no slamming down of phones – or headsets (he was talking via Skype). Next time we chat, we may very well talk about the election and voter fraud. But we'll both know that it's OK. We'll be secure in the knowledge that neither of us is going to change the other's mind, and open to hearing counter arguments.
It's called civil discourse. And it's too bad that, much like common sense, civil discourse just isn't that common anymore.