We need words to mean things.
The phrase “fake news” has been so widely applied that it’s now essentially meaningless, other than identifying those who would rather dismiss than deal with an argument or evidence challenging their conclusions.
The extremely important phrase “voter suppression” is now also tittering on the edge of meaninglessness, thanks in part to the ill-considered efforts of some in the Huntsville area.
They’re exaggerating the impact of the routine process that Alabama uses to mail voter I.D. cards and manage its voter lists.
Here’s the process.
Step one: Register to vote.
Step two: Election officials mail you a voter I.D. card, and ask you to verify the information.
Step three: Follow the instructions on the card if anything needs to be changed.
Or not, according to a group that includes Madison County Probate Judge Tommy Ragland, the county’s top voting official.
“It’s voter suppression, and it gives our county a black eye,” he told AL.com last week.
To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Here’s what’s being alleged: A number of students at Alabama A&M and Oakwood University, both in Madison County, used their campus addresses when registering to vote recently. But when the cards were mailed to those addresses, some of the students reportedly didn’t receive them.
The post office sent the undeliverable cards back to county election officials, who, quite reasonably, assumed the lack of acceptance meant an individual had moved. When this happens, people are placed on the “inactive” voter list which means they can still vote but must first update their information.
Why do this? If the state doesn’t periodically verify its rolls and move unresponsive voters to an inactive list, then the main list would eventually include any registered voter who ever lived in Alabama – alive, dead, or those who moved away.
The rolls would become utterly unmanageable.
Why didn’t some students receive the card? Maybe because Alabama A&M doesn’t have individual mailboxes for students, just one big general delivery pile. University staff said they emailed students asking them to pick up their cards, but hundreds still haven’t.
Not to worry, though. When they show up to vote and learn that they’re on the inactive list, all they have to do is complete a simple form and are then immediately given a ballot, according to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.
“It’s a simple one-page voter update form,” Merrill said. “It takes less than three-minutes to complete.”
Still, Madison County Commissioner Roger Jones thinks that’s “suppressing their right to vote.”
“They have just registered to vote and this is the first time they will be able to vote and then have to go through an ordeal when they go vote Tuesday,” Jones told AL.com.
It’s a one-page form, commissioner, and while waiting in a line is inconvenient, it’s hardly voter suppression.
This is hyperbole and nasty politics at their worst because we’re supposed to assume that this is racist since Alabama A&M and Oakwood have predominantly African-American student bodies.
Folks, this hurts us all.
We need voter suppression to describe exactly what a reasonable person would assume it means: people being denied their right to vote. Voter suppression is a gravely serious charge that should warrant investigation when alleged, and if proven, it must carry swift and stern punishment.
But the way the phrase is being thrown around is remarkably reckless, weakens the strength of the allegation, and reduces the credibility of those making the charge.
Those crying voter suppression right now should remember why we teach our children Aesop’s fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Because when the wolf really does come around, will any of us heed their cries?
J. Pepper Bryars, author of American Warfighter, is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @jpepperbryars.