This week boxing champ Floyd Mayweather was ordered by a judge to pay over $113,000 for refusing to answer questions in boxer Manny Pacquiao’s defamation lawsuit against him. Even if you don’t follow boxing you’ve probably heard this story since it involves the last two popular boxers on the planet: what would be the fight of the century is not happening because Mayweather has made random needle-drawn blood tests a condition for fighting, though such tests are not standard policy in professional boxing. Pacquiao has refused these terms, but has consented to unlimited urine tests.
The reason for Mayweather’s insistence on a specific form of drug testing is that he believes Pacquiao uses performance-enhancing drugs. This is why Pacquiao sued him for defamation—though Mayweather has repeated this accusation repeatedly in public, Pacquiao has never tested positive for any kind of drugs. And so Pacquiao, in Mayweather’s mind, is guilty until proven innocent, and all Pacquiao can do in the meantime is at least clear his name through the lawsuit.
It’s in this way that somehow the vote game reminds me of the boxing game, and not just because of all the theater and drama. States like Pennsylvania have made displaying a state-issued photo voter ID card a condition for voting. Reason being: they—and by “they” I mean people who tend to be Republicans—believe that rampant voter fraud is afoot. In their minds, voters are guilty of fraud until showing ID proves them innocent. Civil rights organizations such as The Advancement Project, ACLU and the NAACP have had to sue these voter ID states for violating the fundamental rights of eligible voters.
Next week in Pennsylvania, a courtroom drama ensues over its photo voter ID law, which was kept in tact by the Commonwealth Court in August, and then appealed to the state’s supreme court, only to be kicked back down to the lower court with instructions to issue an injunction against it if it is as questionably lawful as the Supreme Court found it.
But in both the boxing and the voting cases the strategy is the same: keep the opponent away. Mayweather is adamant about the needle drug tests only because he knows it will keep Pacquiao out the boxing ring with him—the drug allegations are a ruse. Republicans appear to only push for voter ID laws because it will keep voters who tend to be Democrats away from the boxing ring, with voter fraud as their ruse.
Boxing writer Tim Keown of ESPN wrote of the Mayweather Pacquiao saga:
This is a tactic worthy of the best disinformation campaigns. You issue a damning proclamation and then stand back and let everyone else deny it. This is what Mayweather’s people seem to be doing by asking Pacquiao to submit to random blood testing to prove that he’s not using performance-enhancing drugs, whether it be steroids or HGH. And since Pacquiao refuses to consent to anything beyond unlimited urine tests, Mayweather’s people can sit back and say, “See? See what we’re talking about?”
Mayweather has made “cleaning up the sport” of drugs his new campaign, even enlisting other boxers to campaign with him. According to the undefeated champ, the whole sport is corrupt—and to be fair, he’s right. Boxing is notorious for suffering every form of corruption, from paid-off referees and judges to loaded or stuffed gloves. But performance-enhancing drug fraud, not so much. Top flight trainers are known for rooting out that kind of nonsense early on, and Pacquiao has one of the world’s best trainers in Freddie Roach whose reputation lies in his integrity if nothing else.
But Mayweather says it is “basic common sense” that boxers have blood drawn for drug tests in order to draw blood in the ring, “Because this sport is a little different from how it used to be. It’s tainted.”
Elections are also tainted, with paid-off poll workers and judges and people loading and stuffing ballot boxes. But voter impersonation fraud, not so much. And to be clear, the only kind of fraud voter ID laws can address is voter impersonation fraud. And since the proposed remedy doesn’t match the declared problem, one can only conclude that this is about intimidation: keeping people out the ring.
A few highlights from America’s history with voter intimidation—a history that really goes back hundreds of years, but if we just look at the last few years:
1998, South Carolina, a state representative mails 3,000 brochures to black neighborhoods telling them that police would be working the elections and that “this election is not worth going to jail.”
2002, Louisiana, flyers were sent around black neighborhoods falsely telling voters that they could go vote on a day that was three days after the election day
2003, Philadelphia, black voters are met and challenged at the polls by men carrying clipboards and driving a fleet of sedans with signs on them that looked like law enforcement.
While we’re on Philly, note that a Tea Party group has surfaced from the city of brotherly love—the Independence Hall Tea Party—trying to bully the courts into upholding the voter ID law by threatening to have two state supreme court justices voted out if it doesn’t happen. It’s not clear why they think it’s so necessary, though their website includes plenty of anti-immigrant vitriol. Perhaps they believe in magic buses importing i-word-immigrants to come vote and throw the election to Obama.
Who knows? What we do know is that, yes, the history of fraud in America is long and has many tentacles. But America has an even longer, uglier history with disenfranchising voters of color and women. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a recent blog:
Our picture of pre-Civil Rights America is unduly shaped by “Whites Only” water fountains. Some of the most pernicious racism was ostensibly color-blind. This is especially true in the realm of voting, where the legal weaponry of white supremacists weren’t simply “No Coloreds” but literacy tests, poll taxes, felon disenfranchisement and grandfather clauses. And just like vote-fraud prevention, each enjoyed a patina of legitimacy. Literacy tests could be defended by noting that voting should be restricted to those who could read the ballot; poll taxes, by noting that those with a stake in the community should determine its fate; felon disenfranchisement by asserting the basic amorality of criminals.
Pacquiao said in his defamation suit that “Accusing an athlete of using performance-enhancing drugs—however baseless and lacking in evidence—is toxic.”
Penalizing ID-less voters while accusing them of fraud is equally toxic. The state of Pennsylvania is on the record in courts for lacking evidence of voter fraud. We won’t even get into drug-testing welfare recipients under false accusations of welfare fraud. Colorlines’ reporter Seth Freed Wessler addresses that issue best.
It’s not as simple as telling people to just go get ID. In many places, especially Philly, that’s a taxing ordeal. But let’s not lose the fact that all citizens have the right to have a say in who will be making decisions about governing their lives, and should be able to do so without being needled by the government.
For more on the intersection of sports and politics, check out Nation sports writer Dave Zirin's blog.