(RNS) Of all the ugliness in Election 2012, nothing is more disturbing than attempts to prevent people from voting. Voter suppression strikes at the very heart of American democracy.
The flood of money into this year's campaigns has been bad enough, as wealth has sought to do what wealth usually seeks to do: gain control and preference.
The shouting of lies – not just shading the truth, but outright lies – has cheapened the liars and insulted the public.
Demagogic attacks grounded in religion, phony patriotism and race have undermined public trust in all politicians. It will take years to dig out from under the rot of such scorched-earth tactics.
But denying the basic right of citizenship to millions of voters is an offense we should all be protesting. For if the powerful can deny the vote to their opponents – especially the poor and people of color – they can deny the vote to anyone.
While they thought no one was looking, conservative state legislators passed laws that would discourage many non-conservatives from voting, perhaps even make it impossible. Courts are striking down those laws one by one. But the effort itself was despicable.
Now some employers are telling their workers how to vote, with the implied threat that voting “wrong” could cost them their jobs.
Tactics ranging from misinformation about polling places to telephone threats of arrest have been around for several elections. But they seem to be reaching a new level this year, in the first presidential election since the Supreme Court's pivotal Citizens United decision in 2010. Although that decision concerned campaign spending by corporations, the outcome has been removing all restraints from those who would buy or bully an election.
As a result, we can expect serious Election Day doubt on voter access and the accuracy of vote counts, leading to endless legal wrangling to delay the outcome, or perhaps to steer it to a Supreme Court that's considered friendly to Republicans.
Thus could the disenfranchisement of some lead to the disenfranchisement of all. When an election is stolen by the clever and well-funded, all votes are stolen, not just those of the minority being targeted.
When an election is decided by an army of lawyers and the nine justices of the Supreme Court, democracy suffers a fatal blow. We can expect more money, more scurrilous attacks, more distortions and lies, more voter-suppression tactics, more doubt about the worth of the single citizen's vote, and thus more inclination to stay home.
Wealth will have bought a government, and if American history is any guide, unrestrained wealth will undermine job security, the financial system, public education, equitable distribution of societal benefits, health care and public safety. We have been down this road before -- in the late 19th century, in the Great Depression of 1929, and in the more recent Great Recession. It won't be pretty next time, either.
The smart folks trying to steal this election know all this. It's U.S. History 101. They just don't care. They believe their cause justifies any means to attain victory. They believe that the magic cape of right-opinion will prevent demagogues from turning against them, as well.
What they fail to see, but soon will discover, is that when freedom is denied to a few, freedom will soon be denied to many. Wealth and power can never satisfy its appetite. Repression spreads like a forest fire.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
KRE/LEM END EHRICH