In my last column, I looked at one of the fundamental philosophical divides in voting-rights debates: Republicans and conservatives believe that the voter-registration system should be used to ensure that each vote is cast by an eligible voter in the right place and that no eligible voter votes more than once, while Democrats and progressives refuse to treat these as legitimate objectives. Now I’d like to consider a second divide: the question of whether every eligible voter should always vote.
Again, Democrats and progressives hide behind the simplest rhetorical position: Of course, everyone should vote. And if you suggest to them that not everybody should always vote, they immediately assume that you mean that some people should be prevented or prohibited from voting. Too many progressives have difficulty grasping that not everything is either mandatory or prohibited.
To start with, there are some countries where voting really is mandatory — not just dictatorships but even democracies such as Australia. This is fundamentally un-American. If you regard all the candidates as morally intolerable, you should be free to dissent from the system by not voting. That was the stance of William Lloyd Garrison, and while Abraham Lincoln had the better of the argument on the virtues of working within the political system — Frederick Douglass, who once shared Garrison’s view, came around in time to Lincoln’s — it is entirely legitimate for a free society to allow people to take the Garrison position. The freedom not to vote is just one aspect of the freedom not to speak. As Justice Frank Murphy wrote in the 1943 Supreme Court case establishing the right not to salute the flag, “The right of freedom of thought and of religion . . . includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”
It is also entirely appropriate for voters who are totally uninformed about an election to sit it out. Probably most of us have done that at least once in our lives, even if it was just a local school-board election. Voters who do not have a strong allegiance to one political party are especially rational in deciding that their votes in a race they know nothing about would be worse than worthless. This is both a free and responsible choice, and we should not try to hector or pressure them out of making it.
There are, to be sure, intellectually respectable theories of government that explicitly design the franchise to be limited to informed, responsible voters with a stake in the system, and historical examples of imprudent electorates that swiftly voted themselves out of democracy entirely. The men who gave us American democracy in the first place saw things in such terms. For various good historical reasons, however, we have moved toward a more universal vision of who has the right to vote. This is not just a shift in our philosophy, but also a rejection of specific hurdles such as literacy tests that have been used as particular tools of racial oppression in American history and as weapons of oligarchy in Latin American history. Moreover, even in terms of the results they deliver, extremely low-turnout elections tend to produce bad government, as we have seen in New York City. The participation of the broadest possible number of people is the common thread uniting modern conservatism’s classically liberal and populist enthusiasms for democratic popular sovereignty, free markets, tradition, and the rule of written law as superior to rule by an administrative state of judges, experts, and central planners. Other than convicted felons and children, we do not and should not exclude anyone from the electorate on the grounds that we do not want them to vote. And we could probably even do with narrowing the list of felonies that get you permanently barred from voting.
Still, even if we maintain a broad conception of who may vote, there is nothing wrong with preferring that not everybody vote in every election — because voting is a responsibility that deserves deliberation. The progressive vision that everybody should always vote is at best one that sees the vote as a form of self-actualization, valuable in its own right in affirming that the voter is a citizen and has their say. At worst, it seeks the compulsory enlistment of people who don’t know what they’re voting for in the progressive project. Even the self-actualization view, however, misses something important: Voters do not only choose their own leaders; they choose leaders, and rules, for their neighbors, too. They choose how other people will be governed. That is the aspect of voting that makes it somewhat akin to jury service, which carries a responsibility to act with deliberation and attention. Would you want to be judged by a jury on which three of the jurors voted after the opening statement, three slept through the trial, and three more only signed up for jury duty on the day of closing arguments?
America’s voting system actually demands precious little deliberation or effort from voters. All that conservatives ask is that people register themselves in advance of the start of voting, show up on Election Day (or near it; almost everyone should be able to plan to vote within a week of the election), ask in advance if they need an absentee ballot, and bring identification, which the state can typically supply for those few people who do not already have a driver’s license or other major form of state-issued ID. None of this costs money or requires proof of literacy or knowledge. Alabama has a mobile unit that delivers free IDs to people who need them. Georgia’s much-criticized new law explicitly permits illiterate voters to obtain assistance filling out absentee ballots.
Yet Democrats and progressives demand that we register voters automatically, allow them to register the day of the election, or even send them unrequested ballots in the mail — and that we provide a full month in which voters can be pushed to the polls directly from candidate rallies or musical performances. There are solid practical election-security reasons to want voter-registration lists finalized before voting begins, and not to want voters to be eligible to register in one place weeks after they could have voted somewhere else. The theory of what Democrats and progressives urge is that they particularly want the votes of the subset of people (mostly younger voters) who are unwilling or unable to plan ahead, and can be swept into the voting booth on a momentary enthusiasm without deliberation or reflection. The point made by Republicans and conservatives is not that these people should be barred from voting, but that the system benefits from deliberation and reflection, and so should not bend over backward to accommodate voters who are unwilling to play by the rules of adulthood. If they are actually committed to having a voice in the system, they can register to vote next time — in the eleven months of the year available to do that.
So, yes: Everyone should have the right to vote, and ideally everyone should put in the effort to exercise that right. But our system should not go chasing down everyone who otherwise wouldn’t vote. If you are not willing to inform yourself enough to find out where, when, and how to register and vote, your vote is no great loss to the system this time around. Come back when you’ve done your homework. The rest of us will keep the flame until then.