Voting problems

By Bill Felber

Both in Kansas and nationally, the most recurring and persistent political message these days goes something like this: VOTE.

That message is delivered by civic groups, public interest organizations and state and local election officials. It is facilitated by voter registration efforts whose sole purpose is to encourage maximum turnout at the polls on or before election day — and to them it makes no difference which.

The notion of voting as a universal and abstract good has been slowly building for a few decades, but perhaps was given its most visible outlet when MTV staged a “Rock the Vote” campaign a couple of elections ago. It is so widely and commonly accepted today that it may be considered sacrilege to take exception with it.

If so, light the pyres because I do take exception with it.

Two days from now we have an election for president. I’ll just tell you flat out that I’d rather have that decision made by a half dozen well-informed citizens of the Republic than by 50 million dunderheads motivated to go to the polls by incessant public relations campaigns.

Those are not, obviously, the only two options, and I’m not suggesting that most voters are uninformed dolts engaging the process only because some cultural icon told them to. I am suggesting that we encourage the dunderheadization of elections, and that society would be better served if on Tuesday the dolts of America tend to whatever interests may occupy them and leave the political decisions to voters who have suitably prepared themselves to engage in that aspect of civic life.

The ideal turnout in an election is not 100 percent of eligible voters. It is 100 percent of informed, interested and engaged eligible voters. There’s a difference.

Voting ought to be a two-step process. First you study the issues and learn about the candidates… then you cast a ballot. The process in vogue today ignores the first step and skips directly to the second.

I do not advocate the erection of barriers to voting. I would not support a civics test qualifier for the franchise, for example, just as I would not have supported the poll tax had I been voting when there was such a thing. Individuals, not government, have to be the arbiters of their own fitness to cast an intelligent vote.

But government’s responsibility toward turnout properly stops at facilitating participation…it really has no legitimate role in encouraging participation. There’s a big difference between enabling and encouraging or, to perhaps use a more powerful word, coercing. A coercive election is by definition not a free election.

I’m not a big fan of advance voting because I think it cheapens the occasion that is election day, potentially disenfranchises those who vote the day before some profound development, and short-circuits the campaign. There’s also what I now refer to as the “sister” argument. My sister, as committed a foe of our current president as you are likely to meet, died in late September, four days before what amounted to her deathbed advance ballot arrived in the mailbox at her home in Tennessee. Had she survived those four days and cast that ballot, it would be legally counted this coming Tuesday. I loved my sister and admired her political commitment. But I would not argue that a person deceased in September should help determine who is inaugurated the following January.

I will accept the argument that advance voting at least fulfills the enabling function. I’ll also concede that if somebody is dumb enough to cast a ballot before the campaign ends, they get what they deserve if a transformative event unfolds after they have voted. And if a candidate is defeated by a vote cast in September by a person dead since that day, those left to carry on will live with the consequences of our permissiveness.

Beyond enabling people to vote, government should be disinterested in whether they actually do. If one treats the casting of any ballot as an abstract good, then one perforce is treating the decision not to vote as an abstract evil, which it is not. Indeed, I know people who might sagely elect not to vote precisely because they recognize themselves to be unqualified. The drumbeat campaign to increase turnout tacitly encourages those people to act against their best judgment, and effectively marginalizes them if they take the proper course. This is as disreputable a governmental practice as it is an unhealthful one.

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