Politics & Policy

Mail Voting and Civic Ritual

Polling site in Miami, Fla. (Gaston De Cardenas/Getty)
There are serious reasons why citizens should venture out to a public place to vote.

A flyer in my mailbox from the Sierra Club announces, “Everyone’s voting by mail this year.” That’s not quite true, but it is true that for the first time each registered Colorado voter received a ballot in the mail without requesting one. The Centennial State appears to be on the forefront of a national trend toward making early voting and absentee voting the American norm.

A battery of prudential arguments — including concerns about voter fraud — has been adduced in favor of preserving the tradition of voting in person on Election Day. However legitimate these worries are, they should not distract from the cultural reasons to be wary of the change.

Voting is not just a matter of registering a personal preference as on Facebook. It’s a civic ritual. By “ritual,” I mean a performance that sets apart a certain domain of activity from workaday affairs. Examples of rituals include the exchange of marriage vows, raising one’s hand to enlist in the armed services, and rising when a judge enters the room. Marriages, military enlistments, and court proceedings are events of particular significance, and ritual performances mark them as such.

The concern with preserving ritual and tradition sounds quintessentially conservative — and it is — but some on the left have expressed similar worries. Years before the Internet, political philosopher Michael Walzer expressed concern about how technological advances might change the way Americans vote. In Spheres of Justice, he writes,

. . . we might organize push-button referenda on crucial issues, the citizens alone in their living rooms, watching television, arguing only with their spouses, their hands hovering over their private voting machines. And we could organize national nominations and elections in exactly the same way: a television debate and an instant ballot.

Walzer characterizes a change to this way of voting as “an erosion of value — a false and ultimately degrading way of sharing in the making of decisions,” and again as “more like impulse buying than political decision making.” What in 1983 was an exercise in dystopian imagination no longer seems far off. Oregonians have already experimented with voting by iPad. How long before this becomes the nationwide status quo in our Brave New Democracy?

Other philosophers are more skeptical, and even cynical, about civic rituals, seeing them as inefficient at best, fig leaves covering illegitimate domination at worst. In The Problem of Political Authority, Michael Huemer writes,

Why are courts so ritualistic? Perhaps it’s because it’s here that the state is most concerned to portray its coercion as justice. . . . The rituals create a sense of the judge’s authority and the whole process as something profound, sophisticated and worthy of respect — and something governed by rules that go beyond the mere desires of the actual human beings carrying out the process.

It may be, though, that some state coercion is justifiable and even beneficial, and that the ritualistic trappings make this coercion more palatable to subjects than it otherwise would be. Better, one might think, to be coerced in part through symbols than at the point of an unadorned bayonet. Second, there is no reason to think that the actual human beings carrying out the process are incapable of transcending their mere desires in order to discern and implement justice. I assume that in jury rooms, and at polling places, this happens all the time.

A voter, no less than a judge or a juror, has the ability and obligation to transcend personal desires and to think in terms of the general good when he votes. There is thus a distinction between the private citizens who are voting and the public office of voter which each individual voter briefly occupies on Election Day. The distinction between the two is psychologically reinforced when citizens are expected to cast their ballots in a public space as opposed to from their living-room sofa.

As a thought experiment, consider how we’d feel about its becoming the norm for our senators and representatives to vote in this manner, choosing the future of our country as they choose their cable-TV packages. They would, of course, be spared the inconvenience of traveling to Washington, D.C., setting foot into the U.S. Capitol building, and engaging in many bothersome rituals.

Most readers, I suspect, will feel instinctively that these gains in convenience would, in the long run, come at an unacceptable cost to our civic culture. Maybe that intuition is a shortcut for the following argument: If the function of a ritual is to maintain an aura of respect around something — in this case, the democratic process — then it is quite plausible to think that abandonment of the voting rituals could result in less respect for the democratic process itself.

Perhaps the good of increased voter participation is enough of a good to outweigh the long-term risk to our institutions (though it’s ironic to use the word “turnout” to describe what can now be done while staying in). Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, which have mail-based voting systems, enjoy higher than average rates of voter participation, though none of these states has the highest rate of such participation.

That honor goes to Minnesota, a state whose voter-participation success appears to be due in part to several factors, including a patriotic civic culture, high approval ratings, and the availability of same-day registration. So, there appear to be many ways of boosting voter participation that do not require abolishing a civic ritual.

One might further argue that a party with a stronger door-to-door network, or a more enthusiastic base, might generate higher turnout in the traditional sense of actually getting more people to polling places. If mail voting becomes the primary — or even exclusive — way of casting a ballot, then that kind of advantage will have been effectively canceled. It is a virtue of the current system that the playing field between fired-up and nearly apathetic potential voters is not level.

The modern world prizes efficiency and convenience, two values that favor the rise of mail voting. Still, we should think twice before ending the central civic ritual of the republic. If the Norman Rockwell imagery of the American polling place and “I voted” stickers were to disappear from public life, it would be a profound loss to our democratic culture.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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