States in the news

This morning’s New York Times on-line features an article titled “New State Laws Are Limiting Access for Voters” and it presents or conceptualizes the infrastructural entitiy of “the state” in a couple of interesting ways.

On the one hand, states are presented in the journalist protrayal as active agents, in this case, passing laws.

Five states passed laws this year scaling back programs allowing voters to cast their ballots before Election Day, the Brennan Center found.

On the other hand, this hard work was the networked outcome of competing representatives with diverse interests.

Republicans, who have passed almost all of the new election laws, say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and question why photo identification should be routinely required at airports but not at polling sites. Democrats counter that the new laws are a solution in search of a problem, since voter fraud is rare. They worry that the laws will discourage, or even block, eligible voters — especially poor voters, young voters and African-American voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

More in the middle, we see “the state” as both an actor, capable of passing laws, but also an effect of networked practices and representations, as evidenced by the now law-enforced presentation of government-issued identification cards at voting booths (the state being more like the effect, rather than the cause).

The biggest impact, the Brennan Center said, will be from laws requiring people to show government-issued photo identification to vote. This year, 34 states introduced legislation to require it — a flurry of activity that Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, called “pretty unusual.”

In reflecting on these issues, I am reminded of a dichotomy in the literature about states and statehood. Sometimes the state is presented as an empty signifier capable of action, as evidenced in their ability “pass laws this year.” In contrast, sometimes states are defined by their effect, as evidenced by the now law-enforced presentation of government-issued identification cards at voting booths. In our final example, we see one of two things: either an actor-network (where the state is conceptualized as an actor because it is a network) or a register-shift, meaning that the state registers as an actor during certain actions as a shortcut in presenting ideas, but also as an networked entity composed of competing actors incapable of concerted effort that might otherwise be called “state action.”