Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Young Vote

John Sides has a nice post up about a suggestion that the way to boost voting rates is to make voting compulsory...but only for first-time voters. The idea would be that since we have evidence that past voters are more likely to vote in the future, the trick is to get people to vote in the first place.

Sounds as if it would work. But I'm not sure that it's a practical reform suggestion. Whether it is depends on whether there are people who would support compulsory first-time voting but would not, for whatever reasons, support full compulsory voting. I doubt if that's a very large group. The objections to compulsory voting -- either from those who simply want to preserve the current electorate, or from those who have principled liberty-based reasons -- would seem to apply to this scheme.

Long-time readers will anticipate, however, that I have a different solution: lower the voting age. If the voting age is lowered to somewhere between 12 and 16, children will first be introduced to voting when they're living with their parents; presumably, parents who care about voting will encourage their children to register and vote. Will that be habit-forming? I don't know; it's possible that voting would be more habit-forming for young adults than it would be for their younger siblings. However, it certainly avoids the whole question of compulsory voting.

In my view, as I've said, the voting age is too high anyway. I'm still ambivalent about the idea of vote-from-birth, although I certainly don't think it's a crazy idea, but as far as 16 year olds? No question in my mind: they should have the franchise. Now, given the lack of support for lowering the voting age over the last forty years, one might reasonably say that this isn't much of a practical proposal either. So there's that. But I'd still prefer it to compulsory first-time voting anyway, and I think the logic of the situation is that dropping the voting age is more likely to be adopted.


  1. How do you propose to address the problem of parents forcing their children to vote Democratic or Republican?

    I find myself to take quite a bit of thought into making my vote compared to the average person (at least in the primaries) and even I couldn't imagine giving a future child much of a reason to vote the other way.

    Wouldn't a more useful method be to administer a test to score voters' knowledge of politics and history that would weight how much a person's vote counts?

    For example, it has always irked me that a person who pays NO ATTENTION to politics, but then goes to vote because their friend is voting has the same vote as someone who watches all the debates and is a political science professor.

    If we had, say, 10 categories and if you score:

    a perfect 100%: your vote is worth 10 points,
    95-99%: your vote is worth 9 points
    90-94%: 8 points
    85-89%: 7 points
    80-84%: 6 points
    75-79%: 5 points
    70-74%: 4 points
    65-69%: 3 points
    60-64%: 2 points
    59% and under: 1 point

    wouldn't that encourage people to become more educated about voting?

    And, in turn, it would encourage candidates to conduct more positive and issue-oriented campaigns, since it could actually hope to achieve a winnable coalition by appealing to these high-information voters exclusively.

    And low information voters wouldn't be able to complain about being disenfranchised because they still have a vote and everyone has the ability to learn more to achieve a better score.

    The tests should be relatively comprehensive and administered every presidential cycle and maybe, say, 25% changed to include issues that have arisen within the past 4 years.

    1. And the content of those tests would become IMMEDIATELY political, as both sides sought to use the test to discriminate against the other side. Questions would include:

      Global warming is:
      a) proven
      b) pseudo-science funded by people who sell "green" technology

    2. I hate when people do this.

      You can clearly have a historical test that doesn't become partisan.

      Obviously the test wouldn't include questions that haven't been settled yet.

      A sample question could be:

      "The person responsible for ensuring that proper procedures are followed in the Senate are followed is refer to by which of the following terms":

      a) Speaker of the Senate
      b) Senate Supreme Court
      c) Rules and Regulations Oversight Committee
      d) Parliamentarian
      e) watchdog advocacy groups

      What's so partisan about questions like that?

    3. Well, among other things, it selects for people who pay attention in civics class, who in turn are more likely to be white and nonpoor. Seems plenty partisan to me. Even if you attempt to design around this, it's impossible to design a fully objective and non-ideological test to qualify for voting.

    4. How is it partisan to encourage people to pay attention and learn?

      You act as if non-whites and poor people are somehow barred from learning!

      And, of course, it's possible!

      If the test only included questions like the one presented above, it would be non-partisan.

      Something isn't partisan just because on a typical question, 53% of Democrats got it right and only 47% of Republicans did. That's not partisan.

    5. I've never understood the reason why being more informed about civics should matter when it comes to voting. If all I care about is low taxes or a protecting Israel or protecting the right to an abortion, why would I need to know about who the President Pro Tempore of the Senate is? Or any other kind of random fact you would feel is necessary. I don't see the association with policy knowledge making your political choices somehow better or deserving of more impact. Frankly, I think it reeks of elitism, that somehow the hobby of watching politics should grant some kind of special status.

    6. My logic is born from our history with "qualification" tests to vote. Literacy tests in the South were just used to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. The ones that could read were asked to spell harder words and even when they did, they would be told they got it wrong.

      We can make all the claims about how modern testing would be impartial and fair, and I guarantee you that someone who gets tossed out of the voting booth won't find that argument very compelling. And when those disqualifications fall disproportionately by race (as they almost certainly would, given education levels), the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike them down.

    7. OK, I've got the one true test question:

      Q: Who was the first President?

      A. George Washington
      B. George Jefferson
      C. George Clinton
      D. George Burns

      If you can't answer it, you can't vote.

    8. And if you want to award a bonus vote, then fine.

      Q: Name one freedom the First Amendment guarantees?

      A. Speech
      B. Religion
      C. Assembly
      D. I don't know

  2. Let's start small by either making election day a holiday or fall on a weekend day. I'd much rather make it easier for the existing electorate to vote, than to start having major contentious political debates about whether to expand the electorate or to mandate voting for some or all people.

    1. Exactly. Plus, from my reading on the issue, that's the main reason participation is lower in the US than in Europe.

  3. The discussion above about "Oooh, that's partisan" is hilarious. The whole exercise is partisan.

    Just admit what lies behind this: the Democratic core vote needs... ahem... encouragement and assistance to show up to the polling station, vote for the correct candidate, and mark their ballots in an intelligible manner. Most are not remotely interested or informed about politics.

    Personally I'd support a raising of the voting age to 30, and a rule that no state employee, or anyone in receipt of welfare payments, should be allowed to vote.

    1. Anon: thank you for demonstrating why you chose to remain anonymous.

      In older data (the 1970s and 1980s), over 1/3 of Americans had, at some point in their lives, received some form of government cash aid (36% in the GSS) Among those who had, looking back, I found a marginal difference in likelihood of voting Democratic. For example, in 1980, they were only 7 points more likely to vote for Carter than people who had never gotten aid.

      But you go on assuming that everyone who has hit a rough patch in their lives is inferior to you in every way, including their vote choice.

    2. Does the home mortgage interest deduction count as welfare on your planet?

  4. I never said that welfare recipients are inferior. I just think that if they weren't allowed to vote, my party would win more often. If political scientists can fantasise about rigging the electorate to get their preferred outcomes - note the revealing bit about "‘hard-to-reach’ groups such as the young and the poor" - then why can't I?

    And yes, I'd be very happy if it "only" led to a 7 point swing to the Republicans.

    1. That's the thing. I can't speak for John Sides (who didn't advocate anything; he just discussed the likely effects), but I can speak for myself: the preferred outcome that I care about is more democracy.

      I have no idea what the effects of adding 12-17 year old voters to the electorate would be, as far as partisan effects; my guess is that it would mildly help Republicans, but it's just a guess. I'm more confident that vote-from-birth would mildly help Republicans, but it's still a guess (the basis for the guess? Married people are more Republican than single people -- although there are some demographic stuff I can imagine that might balance that).

    2. You say that the idea behind having children vote is that with their parents voting, it will help them build a voting habit.

      But if 50% of the electorate votes and that 50% forces a habit -which they probably do anyway- on their offspring, how does this change things for the other non-voting 50%?

  5. If you want to increase voting, just do things that make it easier for citizens to vote:

    1) vote on the Internet or vote by mail a la Oregon
    2) hold elections on Saturday and Sunday instead of Tuesday when most voters work or in school
    3) add more polling stations and voting machines to reduce lines
    4) streamline voter registration and automatically register citizens to vote when they get a drivers' license, renew their car tag, file their tax returns, etc.

    Lowering the voting age is pointless until you do all of the above. It would just make lines longer and probably create more non-voters for life when 16 or 17 year olds try to vote for the first time and find the process to be burdensome.

    1. I believe the evidence on this is that items one and two, and perhaps 3, don't really do much -- but that automatic registration (which is standard in most nations) would in fact raise voting rates.


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