Voting Law Debate: Why Not Fewer Voters?

Voters at a polling place in San Diego, Calif., in 2016. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The fact is that voters got us into this mess. Maybe the answer isn’t more voters.

Much of the discussion about proposed changes to voting laws backed by many Republicans and generally opposed by Democrats begs the question and simply asserts that having more people vote is, ceteris paribus, a good thing.

Why should we believe that?

Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite? That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?

Many Americans, being devout egalitarians, recoil from the very notion of better voters as a matter of rhetoric, even as they accept qualifications as a matter of fact.

Categorically disenfranchising felons has always been, in my view, the intelligent default position, with re-enfranchisement on a case-by-case basis. It is likely that under such a practice some people who ought to be considered rehabilitated would be unjustly excluded. But all eligibility requirements risk excluding somebody who might make a good voter, or a better voter than someone who is eligible. There are plenty of very smart and responsible 16-year-olds who would make better voters than their dim and irresponsible older siblings or their parents. That doesn’t mean we should have 16-year-old voters — I’d be more inclined to raise the voting age to 30 — it means only that categorical decision-making by its nature does not account for certain individual differences.

Similarly, asking for government-issued photo ID at the polls seem to me obviously the right thing to do, even if it would result in some otherwise eligible voters not voting. I’m not convinced that having more voters is a good thing in any case, but, even if I were, that would not be the only good, but only one good competing with other goods, one of which is seeing to it that the eligibility rules on the books are enforced so that elections may be honestly and credibly regulated.

We could verify eligibility at the polls rigorously and easily, if we wanted to, just as we have the ability to verify who is eligible to enter the country or to drive a car. Of course that would put some burdens on voters. So, what? We expect people, including poor and struggling people, to pay their taxes — why shouldn’t we also expect them to keep their drivers’ licenses up-to-date? If voting really is the sacred duty that we’re always being told it is, shouldn’t we treat it at least as seriously as filing a 1040EZ?

There would be more voters if we made it easier to vote, and there would be more doctors if we didn’t require a license to practice medicine. The fact that we believe unqualified doctors to be a public menace but act as though unqualified voters were just stars in the splendid constellation of democracy indicates how little real esteem we actually have for the vote, in spite of our public pieties.

There are tradeoffs in voting, as there are in all things. Democrats prefer to minimize attention paid to voting fraud and eligibility enforcement, but even a little bit of fraud or improper voting is something that should be discouraged and, if possible, prevented. It is — spare me your sob stories — something that should be prosecuted in most cases. It is a fact that many of the things that would be useful in discouraging and preventing voting fraud would also tend to make voting somewhat more difficult for at least some part of the population. Republicans generally think that tradeoff is worth it, and Democrats generally don’t. Is there motivated reasoning at work there? Of course. But the mere presence of political self-interest does not tell us whether a policy is a good one or a bad one.

One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants. That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter.

Voters — individually and in majorities — are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them, often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant. That is one of the reasons why the original constitutional architecture of this country gave voters a narrowly limited say in most things and took some things — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. — off the voters’ table entirely. It is easy to think of critical moments in American history when giving the majority its way would have produced horrifying results. If we’d had a fair and open national plebiscite about slavery on December 6, 1865, slavery would have won in a landslide. If we held a plebiscite on abolishing the death penalty today, the death penalty would be sustained.

If the question is the quality of policy outcomes, then both major camps have reasons to dread genuine majority rule. Conservatives ought to at the very least be mindful of the fact that if policy truly represented the preferences of the average American, then we would have fewer economic liberties and diminished Second Amendment rights; progressives should consider that if policy actually represented the preferences of the average American, then abortion rights would be limited and tax hikes would not fly, while we’d be spending more money on the Border Patrol and less on welfare as work requirements reduced the rolls. Popular opinion does not break down along neat ideological lines.

The real case — generally unstated — for encouraging more people to vote is a metaphysical one: that wider turnout in elections makes the government somehow more legitimate in a vague moral sense. But legitimacy is not popularity and popularity is not consent. The entire notion of representative government assumes that the actual business of governing requires fewer decision-makers rather than more.

Representatives are people who act in other people’s interests, which is distinct from carrying out a group’s stated demands as certified by majority vote. Legitimacy involves, among other interests, the government’s responsibility to people who are not voters, such as children, mentally incapacitated people, incarcerated felons, and non-citizen permanent residents. Their interests matter, too, but we do not extend the vote to them. So we require a more sophisticated conception of legitimacy than one-man, one-vote, majority rule. To vote is only to register one’s individual, personal preference, but democratic citizenship imposes broader duties and obligations. When we fail to meet that broader responsibility, the result is dysfunction: It is no accident that we are heaping debt upon our children, who cannot vote, in order to pay for benefits dear to the most active and reliable voters. That’s what you get from having lots of voting but relatively little responsible citizenship.

Voting is, among other things, an analgesic. It soothes people with the illusion that they have more control over their lives and their public affairs than they actually do. Beyond naked political self-interest, it probably is the sedative effect of voting that makes expanding participation attractive to a certain kind of politician. The sedative effect is why the Philadelphia city council has not been drowned in the Schuylkill River and why the powers that be in California have not been exiled to North Waziristan. When people vote, they feel like they’ve had their say, and they are, for some inexplicable reason, satisfied with that.

We don’t accept that in other areas of life: If Amazon fails to deliver your package, you expect Amazon to actually do something about it — either get you what you ordered or give you a refund. You wouldn’t be satisfied simply yelling at a customer-service representative and thus having had your say — you expect your deliverables to be delivered. It is good to have your say, but that is not sufficient. That holds true almost everywhere, but not in politics.

Thus the unspoken slogan of every incumbent’s campaign: “You’ve had your say, now shut the hell up.”

Progressives and populists like to blame lobbyists, special interests, “the Swamp,” insiders, “the Establishment,” vested interests, shadowy corporate titans, and sundry boogeymen for our current straits, but the fact is that voters got us into this mess. Maybe the answer isn’t more voters.

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