A Bad Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come

Quillette often offers interesting think pieces, and every now and then one falls completely flat. This argument for compulsory voting by Chang Che fits into this category. Of all the necessary reforms our country could undertake, requiring people to vote – or even increasing the number who do – would fall at the very bottom, yet that is precisely what Che prescribes.

Che gets off to an inauspicious start, writing, “The right to vote is under relentless assault in the United States today.” Che proceeds to misread a Supreme Court decision, or at least leaves out pivotal details, while adding, “The consequences of the ruling were swift. North Carolina immediately proposed a voter suppression bill that eliminated same-day voter registration.”

When I think voter suppression, the first thing that comes to mind is not eliminating the ability to register to vote on the same day as an election. There seems to be a pretty big leap to go from intentionally disenfranchising black voters via poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means employed through the ages to making voters have to register further out in advance of an election. Similarly, requiring photo identification, as many other nations do, can only be classified as voter suppression if minorities and other classes of people are systematically prohibited from entering the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Having already established a shaky intellectual foundation, it only devolves from there, but I don’t want to leave this point quite yet. The entire foundation of Che’s argument is built on a faulty premise – that we’re basically a Supreme Court decision away from minorities being deprived of their constitutional right to vote. This sort of a-historical nonsense unfortunately undermines the basic premise of the entire piece.

Turning now to applying this theory, Che points to Australia as a case where mandatory voting work. What Che doesn’t show is a causal link to mandatory voting and changes in how the laws are structured, as Che’s point is that the government would have to be more responsive to the concerns of the poor if more poor people voted (and poorer people do tend to vote in lower proportions than richer voters). If one of the animating reasons to drive higher voter turnout is “more responsiveness to the poor” – the contention that our politics are not already concerned with these issues itself dubious – then it would behoove the author to show that this has been the practical result where it has been applied. All Che has is the contention that people in Australia take voting more seriously now. Well, duh.

Che also contends that compulsory voting would make society less polarized because non-voters tend to be more moderate. This would be news to the 80% or so of eligible voters who voted in the 1860 election. Now it might be countered that that’s the point – all those disenfranchised voters would have tempered American society. Yet there’s really no evidence that it’s the non-voting public’s absence from the polls that is riving the nation in two. In fact it could lead to even more naked partisanship and electioneering if more people must be appealed to.

I don’t know that mandatory voting would temper partisan feelings because it’s an unknowable proposition. That doesn’t stop Che from writing, “There is ample evidence that compulsory voting could reverse the polarization trend. In a 2017 poll, approximately six out of 10 Americans believe that both the Democratic and Republican parties are out of touch with the concerns of most people. ” Ample does mean what Che evidently think it means. One poll showing people don’t think the parties represent them – a percentage, by the way, that is likely equally true for voters and non-voters alike – it doesn’t follow that forcing those disaffected from politics into the voting booths is likely to change much of anything.

Then there’s this:

“The main objection to compulsory voting is that it is in violation of our individual liberty. Although this is never decisive (taxation is also a kind of compulsory policy), the principle places a heavy burden of justification on the proponents of compulsory laws. Yet compulsory voting may be more conducive to individual liberty. Because elections in a democracy are the means by which laws are passed, electoral arrangements have deep and pervasive consequences on the freedoms granted to different groups. In the case of something as fundamental as electoral reform, coercion of a vote must be balanced with the potential freedoms enjoyed by different individuals and groups from a newly responsive government. This means that a society with more government coercion on its face may very well respect individual liberty more than a minimalist government. If the burden of proof should be on those who want to curtail individual liberty, then it falls on both sides in this debate, not just on the proponents of compulsory voting.”

This word salad does not make any sense unless you think Rousseau’s call to “force people to be free” should be taken literally. Mass democracy is also no guarantee of greater liberty. Our constitutional order was built at least in part on a suspicion of how the masses restrict freedom, as Framers such as Alexander Hamilton had vivid recollections of things like the New York Trespass Act and the way in which Tory Loyalists were treated and the personal property and civil rights violated. Current polls show increasing hostility to the first amendment – or at least increasing support for measures which clearly violate its precepts. I certainly would not feel any more secure in my rights knowing that the least informed and most aggrieved of my fellow citizens were voting in increased numbers.

He finally calls Thomas Jefferson to his side:

But even if citizens are currently not informed enough to make intelligent voting decisions, there are still reasons to encourage universal voting. According to Thomas Jefferson, “If we think [voters] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” 

Normally when someone I disagree with quotes Thomas Jefferson, they at least are quoting him accurately and correctly. Except nothing in this quote suggests Thomas Jefferson is advocating compulsory voting. Jefferson wanted to do more to educate the public and promoted greater educational opportunities to create a more informed public. But Jefferson surely also understand that the education came first – not the other way around.

Greater turnout is something we should strive for, but it should be as a result of a better educated, more informed citizenry. Expecting compulsory voting to lead to better political outcomes and a better informed citizenry is a recipe for disaster.

Oh yeah, and I’m fairly certain it’s unconstitutional. But what’s a constitution between friends?

3 thoughts on “A Bad Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come

  1. On the positive side, I am glad to see more people working on polarization and hyper-partisanship. I am interested in your perspective of the underlying question: “how do we get more people to vote?” Che is not alone in the view that more people voting is a good thing, even though I suspect the reasons are more overtly partisan for many folks.

    I hear you saying that more people voting is not necessarily a good thing. If that is correct, why?

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  2. Voting should be the end of citizenship formation, not its inducement. I have no desire to see uninformed citizens make critical decisions about leadership. I don’t think society gains anything from having more people voting who don’t possess any real understanding of politics or even have a cursory knowledge of current events.

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    1. I largely agree. Truth be told, not a fraction of voters know enough about local candidates to vote intelligently for individual candidates. Perhaps a stronger argument can be made for voting for local party control, balance, or opposition but not much for the people we vote for to be judges, Clerks of Courts, Sheriffs, and such. Taken to the national stage, move voters has questionable appeal if we are not representatives of our various groups. I am a husband, father, and son, a Roman Catholic Christian, a lawyer, a property owner, a native resident of my town and county and state. My real character isn’t easily lumped into “white, middle class, conservative, libertarian.” If my voting doesn’t represent anyone but myself, how is convincing me to vote, in a system which takes its queues entirely from special interests and identity politics, “representative”?

      I said in the last election “vote or don’t vote,” it is none of my business and I wont’t think more or less of you for doing so.

      You’d think I had broken some terrible moral law by that statement but it sure drew scorn and pissed people off. I believe that is how I feel though. I just don’t see any merit in encouraging people to vote who don’t feel like doing so.

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