The XX Factor

Birtherism Is Expensive

David Ariosto at CNN writes about the rift in the Republican party as the four-in-ten Republicans who can be classified as “birthers” are starting to conflict with the party elites who rightfully see birtherism as electoral poison in general elections. At the center of the conflict this week is Jan Brewer, who vetoed a bill passed by wide margins in the Arizona legislature that would require presidential candidates to produce proof beyond just their birth certificate that they were born in the U.S., since Obama has a birth certificate, and the point of the law is to try to force him out of office. Brewer forcefully denounced the birther bill in her veto, thus the theory that she’s trying to distance herself from the craziness.

I would argue that while Brewer might have her eye on mainstream credibility (though that didn’t stop her from signing overtly racist laws meant to harass people walking around while Hispanic in Arizona), I’d argue there’s a lot more going on here than a simple dislike of birther conspiracy theories. Part of it is that Arizona, along with all the other states considering similar legislation, really can’t afford to fight this battle in court. These bills are so poorly written they can be challenged on a number of levels, and since the presidency of the United States is such an important office, you can expect pretty much all of these challenges to happen in one form or another. Brewer singled out a provision in the bill that would allow circumcision or baptismal papers to work as further proof that you were born here, and I imagine it was more than personal offense that played a role. After all, such a provision does amount to a religious test for office, if viewed in a certain light. (Though a weird one that ends up excluding people who belong to Protestant religions that eschew baptizing newborns.)  Brewer also mentioned that the bill only gave a single person-the Arizona secretary of state-to declare a birth certificate acceptable or not. If that had been the law in the last election, and the secretary of state allowed John McCain, born in Panama, to be considered a native citizen but disallowed Obama, born in Hawaii, the same distinction, that would have resulted in a massive lawsuit that would have cost the state millions of dollars in defending it. Since the law allowed no appeals process to simplify things, it would have gone to lawsuits immediately. Additionally, the law would have threatened federal powers.  It really wouldn’t have been long until Arizona was dealing with lawsuits from groups representing the voters, the federal government, and the candidates themselves.

Right now, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are flushing taxpayer money down the toilet at alarming rates by passing overtly illegal laws that the state then has to defend in court. Arizona is at the top of the heap with a law requiring people to show their citizenship papers to law enforcement when challenged on the basis of how they look, but the problem goes way beyond that. Kansas just passed a law that recalls Jim Crow restrictions on voting, and is probably in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act. States across the country are passing laws that directly violate Supreme Court rulings on abortion. Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have already started the lawsuit against South Dakota, and defending the state’s abortion restrictions is expected to cost the state at least $4 million . And don’t even look at how much Republican shenanigans against unions in Wisconsin will likely cost the state in legal bills.

Let’s hope Brewer’s veto of another costly bit of far-right legal experimentation signals more than a rejection of birtherism, but a new era of politicians saying “no more” to illegal legislation that will end up costing the taxpayers billions that could have otherwise been used on more productive projects than advancing right-wing nuttery.

Photograph of Jan Brewer by Ethan Miller/Getty Images