Thursday, October 28, 2010

Do You Want People To Vote?

That's really the question that Kevin Drum is tackling in his posts on voter fraud (first one, second one).

Look, it's not as if there's no history to this.  There have always been Americans who believed that everyone should vote...and there have always been Americans who want a better electorate.  In my experience, those attitudes (as opposed to the way they're deployed politically) are not partisan.  Get in a discussion with a decent-sized group, liberals or conservatives, ask the right questions, and you'll soon reveal that several people don't really think that it's right that the ignorant have the same voice on Election Day as the well educated.

It's not a crazy position!  Reading through the comments on my "voting stories" posts, you'll find people who clearly have spent a good deal of time and energy figuring out how to vote for a bunch of obscure offices.  But we know that they're in the extreme minority; most of the people who vote on Tuesday will be taking wild guesses on many items, certainly on non-partisan offices and ballot questions.  I can understand those who believe it's somehow unfair or unjust.

But they are wrong.  In a democracy, the people rule.  All of them.  Not just the well-educated.  Not just the well-informed.  Not just the intelligent.  Everyone.  At various times within any democratic political system, all sorts of people have outsized influence, but on Election Day, in casting our ballots, we're all supposed to be equal.  One person, one vote.

So I support a system that makes voting a lot easier than it is.  That's why I think our long ballot should be shorter.  That's one of the reasons I don't like ballot measures, or non-partisan elections.  It's also why I think formal barriers to voting should be eliminated -- all citizens, including felons, should be on the rolls, as should at least teenagers, if not younger children.  Ex-felons?  It's a national disgrace that they're barred in many places.

When there are trade-offs, I would always choose easier participation, even if it risks hanky-panky.  I'd like to see registration eliminated as a barrier to voting.  Voter registration should be automatic, and it should follow people around so they don't have to re-register every time they move.  Would that, on balance, increase the chances of fraud?  Yup.  Do I care?  Nope.  To be as clear as I can...if automatic registration would mean, say, an extra million citizens voting, but ten of those are dead people who get voted by some devious corrupt pol...yes, that's a good deal for democracy.

When it comes to voting, I'm going to choose lower hurdles every time.


  1. Jonathan--

    My trouble with our political system is that the Senate (and, to a lesser extent, the gerrymandering of the House) violates the one person, one vote standard. I remember you noting once that this didn't make a difference, as the partisan split in the Senate is pretty similar to that in the House and, most of the time, the country.

    But, I think that overlooks the fact that urban areas are vastly underrepresented, which results in underinvestment in infrastructure (particularly transit) and, worse, bad, politically-driven transportation policies (e.g. Amtrak). And, if we follow Bill Bishop's analysis, the strong relationship between party loyalty and geographic location means that Democrats are likely to become weaker, not stronger, politically as they concentrate in major metropolitan areas.

    I don't see a way out of this problem, other than radically changing the Senate (by forming new states out of existing ones, or by calling a constitutional convention and moving to a parliamentary system, neither of which seems likely to happen) or states banding together to form regional compacts that take on the functions that the federal government had performed (e.g., a Northeast corridor regional rail system could replace Amtrak).

    What are your thoughts on this?

  2. Seems like we dealt with this educated v. uneducated who-should-be-allowed-to-vote question before. Hmm Where o' where do I remember that? Oh! Yeah! The Deep South in my childhood of yore!

    They passed this thing called The Voting Rights Act of 1965, back in (wait for it!) 1965. I thought that settled the question.

    Guess not.

  3. Well duh. Because when people vote, Democrats win. That's why voter suppression is always orchestrated by the right against liberals. Democrats get accused of registering Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to vote, but as someone who has run voter registration drives in my community, there is nothing wrong with doing that. In my state the burden is not on the person registering voters to check IDs and as I wrote during the ACORN fauxtroversy, it is quite conceivable that someone has changed their name to Mickey Mouse. Hell, people do all sorts of crazy things, and it's not against the law. Hell I live in Tennessee, you know how many people here have changed their name to Elvis? It IS the responsibility of the election commission to check social security numbers and make sure this person actually exists.

    It always amazes me how the right is allowed to get away with crying "voter fraud!" over things that aren't anything close, but they'll hire a repeat offender like Nathan Sproul in a heartbeat.

  4. What would be interesting is a movement to ban debtors from voting....

  5. Louis,

    House gerrymandering mostly doesn't bother me. On the Senate, I absolutely agree that the Senate is unjustifiably undemocratic. I think we're basically lucky that it doesn't seem to matter a lot (I think your points about urban/rural are fair, but not all that huge a deal in the overall scheme of things). It's also not something that's going to get fixed, so I don't really know what else to say about it, but yes, I'd prefer that the Senate wasn't radically malapportioned.

  6. Jon,
    You argue that us Mugwumps are wrong. I submit that your argument has a key, unstated (though it's fairly obvious) assumption: Democracy is good.
    I still hold to the belief that a philosopher-king system (with myself as philosopher-king, of course) is the ideal. No Arrow cycling. No errors of prefernce aggregation. And, because I'm an elightened philsopher-king, no errors in conversion of utility to expected utility (which is really what the "uninformed voter" problem is about: people not knowing what's in their best interest). (this is tongue-in-cheek, but also a real argument)

    Now, of course, the problem with philosopher-kingdoms is what results when the philosopher-king doesn't have people's best interests at heart. But, since everything we want is subjective anyway, it helps me to sleep at night to think that what I want is good; otherwise, I should change my mind.

    Now, this logic even applies once you accept that my philosopher-kingship is not forthcoming. It is perfectly natural for people to think that what they believe is superior to what others believe. Heck, it's the definition of a preference. It's also natural to think that one's preference is the result of being smarter or more informed than others, because the alternatives are psychologically unsettling. (And once you allow for individual preferences to matter, as in a democracy, you have to allow for them to be formed for any reason, including it just making a person feel better) Thus, it is only rational to seek to restrict the franchise, because it is only rational to think that increases the weight of one's own vote, which is seen by this same person as helping to make better policies.

    Well, this may justify the position as rational, but you say it is wrong, and I believe you mean this in a moral sense instead of just being incorrect. This, of course, raises the problem of defining right from wrong, and a number of philosophies would come down differently on this. Utilitarianism, for example, would side with us Mugwumps, I think, whereas I tend to think that Liberalism (big L) would side with you.

    Now, the practical application of Mugwumpism isn't necessarily easy, and the cure may be worse than the disease. So, for example, how would we determine whether a given individual "should" be allowed to vote? Education, some intelligence test, some information test, felony convictions, etc., all have some nasty consequences to them and likely don't do the job you want. Either the implementation of such a rule would be subject to abuse, or the rule itself would be flawed and disenfranchise folks that you "want" to be able to vote. Thus, we come to your position that any kind of disenfranchisement is flawed. But I don't think that makes the idea that you think "the world would be a better place if people who disagreed with you didn't vote" wrong.

  7. Agree with nearly all JB's points about voting, except for reducing the voting age. Perhaps I haven't yet appreciated the quality of the arguments in favor, or there's some psychological block or parental instinct kicking in, or all of the above. Under certain conditions however -- streamlined and simplified ballot, easy registration by mail or on site, along with a strong national push, with standards, to improve our public education in civics -- then I might want to consider lowering it to, say, age 16.


    1) Fed law to make uniform and very basic and simple the voting systems in the states where any fed office is on the ballot, reducing to an absolute minimum the role of electronic voting and tabulation. Clear enforceable provisions for violations, at the felony level for each violation.

    2) Continue to make mail-in voting easily available. Make presidential voting day the first weekend in Nov, two days.

    3) Require all tv networks to air in the two months leading up to Nov, 2 minutes/prime time night of PSAs educating the public about our electoral system and/or the major candidates for major office. Partner with Hollywood and academia. It worked for anti-smoking and, to a lesser extent, DWI. Might reduce the number of awful political ads now saturating the airwaves, most of them barely making it over the truthful bar.

    4) Bring back the LWV, or similar, to conduct the presidential debates. No more softy one-person questioner formats featuring a lame MSMer -- return to the old format of a panel of solid journalists over a 90 minute program of fairly tough questioning. See 1960, 1976. 3 debates minimum, the last no later than 10 days before the election.

    5) Reform the EC. State compact idea seems the best I've seen.

  8. You ignore the Australian practice of compulsory voting.

    Why not have state elections on different dates, ideally the odd years?

    In watching your electoral process, I am amazed at how time consuming your process can be with people lining up for hours to vote. I realize some of this is willful voter suppression, but I can't help but believe, especially for poor and for busy people there is an incredible economic incentive (both time and money sense) not to vote under such conditions. For our municipal elections last Monday in Toronto, I had to wait in line for ten minutes before voting. For me this is about the longest I've ever waited in 40 years of voting. (there was one time when I looked at a too long line on the way to work, turned around and came back at suppertime).

  9. To be as clear as I can...if automatic registration would mean, say, an extra million citizens voting, but ten of those are dead people who get voted by some devious corrupt pol...yes, that's a good deal for democracy.

    Of course that's a good deal, but the anti-fraud zealots would totally disagree with your premise. In their minds, for every million voters registered automatically, there could be thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of fraudulent registrations. Who knows what the actual number would be? I, for one, don't. But the real, empirical risk of fraud really is the crux of the matter.

    So, the question for you is: if automatic registration would mean a million new voters registering, but 10,000 of them are fraudulent, would you still consider that a good deal?

  10. Andrew,


    Everyone who isn't voting but would if the hurdles were lower is...well, it's not fraud, but it's not immediately clear that fraud is worse.

    Beyond that, get enough vote fraud, and it'll be caught and prosecuted. It doesn't worry me a lot.

  11. Matt,

    You are correct that my argument follows from an assumption that democracy is good.

    As for that...I think there are several decent justifications for democracy. One is utilitarian, and depends on the empirical case that democracy yields "better" (in a utilitarian sense) policy results. I suspect, but don't know, that is true. A second is rights-based, and essentially depends on the idea that everyone has a right to self-determination, and by extension self-government. I find that appealing, but suspect it is not true. A third, which as regular readers know I'm impressed with, is based on the idea of political participation as inherently fulfilling for its own sake, which is only possible for all in a democracy, and may only be possible for any in some sort of democracy (dictators can fulfill their other self-interests, but could they actually do politics? Arendt would say no).

  12. On voting times/rules,

    I'm for whatever makes voting easier. I'm not really very familiar with the literature on things like mail-in voting...right now, it's probably good that there are a lot of different methods, and I'd be for waiting a decade and then adopting whatever works. Hmmm...I have another idea, but I think I'll do a separate post on it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?