Humor in America: Voter ID Laws and the Question of Political Satire

 

This is a guest post by Tracy Wuster, editor of Humor in America, a blog about American humor and Humor Studies.

 

Most of the time, politics is a serious business. People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights. True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun (or laughing scorn), and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes. But the amount of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.

In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society. Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show. Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor. We here at “Humor in America” would like to invite you to write posts on this subject between now and election day. Please contact us if you might be interested.

One specific political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression. While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly. As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:

There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010. It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.

Other stories back up this argument:

Juan
Williams on Fox News

Harold
Meyerson on the Washington Post

Charles
Blow in the New York Times

Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue. Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudices. Serious stuff.

Where does the humor come in?

Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:

doonesbury jim crow voter id suppression gary trudeau

And from the next day:

doonesbury voter id supression jim crow

And check out the rest of the series: here, here, here , and ending
with this
one
:

But that wasn’t all…

Cartoonists took up the issue with gusto. A few examples:

AdamZygus showing a common theme: the GOP trying to squash voting for its
own benefit.

Dave Granlund takes up another theme: the difficulty of voting as a consequence of the laws. (also, here)

M. Wuerker on the GOP’s efforts using a war metaphor. A different version. Another from Wuerker.

The aim of these cartoons seems to be two-fold: to raise awareness of the issue of voting rights and to argue that Republican efforts are overreactions designed to make voting harder for certain groups. Trudeau goes further in linking these efforts to Jim Crow laws (but see this one).

As satire, the aim or impact of such humor might depend on the audience, depending on whether one has a settled opinion of the issue at hand or
whether one is undecided or unclear on the issue. As with the satire of the conventions, the workings of such political humor is a complex transaction that has different aims depending on audience. While it is undoubtedly important to think about such material in terms of changing opinions, it is also to spend more time thinking about how cartoons might reify and clarify existing opinions.

One test might be one’s reactions to cartoons/humor that challenges one’s views (and if you are in favor of voter ID laws, then you have already seen
those examples). But for me, the examples are below. For instance, Gary Warvel raises the most prominent counter-argument about the activities that require an ID. See here, as well. (Also, see a few that raise the issue of dead
voters–also
here).

The argument here is simple and straightforward and needs to be addressed, as its logic clearly appeals to large numbers of people (whereas the fear
of dead people voting, or people voting multiple times, seems simple a fear tactic). The balance of proof seems to be on those supporting these laws to prove that voter fraud is a real problem
that warrants making voting harder. For me, I will stick with logical
arguments
over scare tactics:

Proponents of tough new voting restrictions often argue that voter fraud cancels out honest votes, effectively disenfranchising you and
me. The irony is that by trying to stamp out a fraud menace that doesn’t exist, millions of honest voters will be turned away from the polls. If
widespread voter fraud existed, we should confront it. In the meantime, we shouldn’t make policy out of tall tales and paranoid fears.

More pieces of note:

*Daily Show on voter ID laws. Ohio.
(also, here and here) Pennsylvania.

*Colbert.

*Some nice history with a bit of satire by David Blight. A cartoon comment on the history.

*Bill Maher on
voter suppression
.

*How to Steal and Election (feature comics)

*This might not be directly related, but W. Kamau Bell’s new show “Totally Biased” is great. And
he is doing really interesting political humor.

*Register to vote. Go here for instructions.

*A good collection of cartoons on the subject at Cagle’s
place
.

What else? Feel free to post other humor on the issue or to comment on this post.

(c) 2012, Tracy Wuster (all images and clips copyright of their producers,
used under fair use)

About the Author

Jason Parker