Politics & Policy

‘Democracy Day’ Is No Solution to Low Turnout

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Not least because low turnout isn’t actually a problem that needs solving.

If Bernie Sanders has his way, “Democracy Day” will be the crowning holiday of America’s dystopian future. Imagine: Everyone in slab-gray uni-gender tunics and biodegradable Crocs, all lined up in perfect uniformity to cast a legally mandated vote for the single party that remains. Democracy! Pharrell’s “Happy” will play over loudspeakers in the background. On loop.

To the country’s credit, a future in which Americans submit en masse to the shame of Crocs is unlikely. But Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is proposing, in the wake of November’s midterm-election turnout numbers, a new federal holiday: Election Day, or, as he would have it, “Democracy Day.”

Sanders has at least token support from Christopher Ingraham, writing at the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” who notes in panic that one out of every three registered voters who did not make it to the polls said they could not because of “schedule conflicts with work or school.” That, at least, is the finding of a recent report from the Pew Research Center, based on a sample of 181 registered voters. But while Ingraham cautions against interpreting too broadly this “smallish” sample, he is still exercised that Americans might encounter obstacles to joining in the political process — particularly at a time when Republicans are engaged in such nefarious “vote-suppression efforts.” Should not a responsible country be doing everything in its power to encourage civic participation?

But there are several obvious problems with turnout-raising schemes, the first being that low turnout as such is not necessarily a bad thing. As John Adams noted in his A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, the American electoral system does not take into account intensity; the vote cast by the guy who tattooed Mitt Romney’s logo to the side of his head counted for no more than the ballot submitted by a voter who checked Obama’s name because it was, like, way more fun to say. (Adams, for what it’s worth, contemplated a system that would allow votes to be “weighed,” as well as counted.) Low turnout might well indicate a small group of very interested people, and that might be a better indication of the country’s desires than truckloads of people completing a ballot because they felt obligated — or, worse, faced a penalty if they did not.

Furthermore, on the left, low turnout is a problem only when Democrats lose, because Democrats assume that the majority of those people who stayed home would have voted “D.” Indeed, this was the president’s rationale, expressed in his post-election press conference, for ignoring the obvious message of his midterm shellacking: “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.” (N.B.: As a matter of logic, if one can cast a vote by not voting, the whole turnout problem would seem to be moot.)

The low-turnout lament is also belied by the fact that most states have early voting (something Ingraham oddly neglects to mention), which, unless your workday looks like Jack Bauer’s, probably provided ample occasions for would-be voters to cast a ballot — given that in several states early voting starts more than a month before Election Day. (In Chicago, you can probably still vote. Your dog, too.)

But let’s say that low turnout is a problem, and that Americans ought to be frolicking to voting booths in their local precincts on Election Day. Is the way to make that happen a holiday?

Consider the other federal holidays you already celebrate by ignoring them: Do you have your false teeth ready for Presidents’ Day? How did you pass Columbus Day — admiring a wall map and evangelizing the natives? Giving Americans federal license to lie in bed all day is probably not going to encourage robust political activism.

But of all the reasons not to support “Democracy Day,” perhaps the most obvious is that . . . it’s creepy. Not a few observers over the years have noted that “democracy” is a word that tends to be used in celebratory ways primarily in places that do not practice it: for instance, North Korea, a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Governments take to lauding democracy as a way of concealing the fact that it no longer exists.

What Sanders et al. want in “Democracy Day” is, indeed, a holiday — but in its original meaning: a “holy day.” They worship “democracy.” The very word is an enchantment against all forms of political evil. On “Democracy Day,” we would all do obeisance.

But “democracy” defined as five minutes’ work one Tuesday every even-numbered year is no democracy at all. Because democracy is not just about casting a vote. It is about the freedom to partake of the myriad roles available in the political process — or, if one so chooses, to not partake. “Democracy Day” would only diminish the concept, and habituate Americans to Sanders’ shriveled stand-in.

Whereas in a functioning democracy, every day is Democracy Day.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute

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