The libertarian war on voting continues

Just as many on the left have spent a long time trying to figure out how to achieve universal health care, a lot of thinkers on the right are mulling over ways to combat the ills of universal suffrage.

Making it more difficult to vote (or impossible, in the case of ex-felons) is not enough. Some Tea Party activists are pushing for a constitutional convention to pass amendments that would never get through a popularly elected Congress. There’s also the low-frequency campaign to repeal the amendment allowing for the popular election of U.S. senators, which voters have apparently abused by putting in people who stick their noses in the affairs of other states. Charles C.W. Cooke on the National Review Online: “Returning the selection of senators to state legislatures would help to focus citizens’ eyes locally, where they belong.”

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In other words, earn your right to think globally.

One rationale for limiting the power of elected officials is that voters are not informed enough to pick the right ones. This argument is made in Ilya Somin’s 2013 book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter, first discussed on this blog last October. (See "Cato Institute: Choosy voters choose smaller government.")

But few Americans are likely to accept the premise that they’re too ignorant to vote, so Reason.com’s Sheldon Richman offered a variation on the argument on Sunday: Voters are ignorant because they vote. In a piece called “Voting Is a Lousy Way to Express Yourself,” Richman argues that campaigns are “merely theatrical productions” and that voting “conveys no clear message at all.”

He also makes an argument that astounds me every time I read it, though smart alecks usually save it for late October:

Except in the tiniest jurisdictions, the chance of an election-day tie is far smaller than the chance of being hit by lightning on the way to the polls. It matters not at all what any individual voter does. The odds are that no election in your lifetime would have been different had you done something other than what you did that day — including staying home. One vote is like one drop in the ocean: inconsequential.

This is ridiculous. Your vote isn’t wasted if you don’t break a tie. Margins count in politics. Presidents and governors and legislators who win by lower-than-expected margins have less power over other political actors. They may get more skittish about making unpopular decisions. Most importantly, the size of an elected official’s victory is a big factor when people decide whether it’s worth funding an opponent in the next election. A convincing victory margin also can determine whether someone can run for higher office, which is why Chris Christie would not have been satisfied winning a second term as governor of New Jersey by one vote.

On the other side, votes for losing candidates can still make a difference. Someone who does better than expected may run again (and find it easier to raise money), or bring attention to new ideas. Reason.com itself ran a story last fall celebrating the 6.6 percent won by the Libertarian candidate for governor of Virginia. (“Sarvis drew support both from Democrats and Republicans, something that suggests libertarianism’s potency as a catalyst for coalition-building around issues of freedom.”) Was that election a case where “It matters not at all what any individual voter does”?

Perhaps realizing that he’s not really going to fool people into not voting, Richman returns to the “ignorant voter” idea that’s percolating among those who want to curb government power:

The “informed voter” is thus a chimera. Since people can’t vote on the basis of serious knowledge, they vote on superficial bases, such as how candidates make them feel about themselves or how well candidates conform to long-held, unexamined irrational biases.

Most Americans consistently vote for candidates from one or the other major political party, which Richman apparently attributes to those “unexamined irrational biases.” His attitude is understandable coming from an ideology that doesn’t quite fit the Republican Party and is a nonstarter among Democrats, but it’s not proof that partisanship is irrational. For most Americans, it makes sense to consistently vote for the party that better represents their interests and values; there’s no need to start from scratch and run a cost-benefit analysis every November. In every election, some voters do switch sides, and many do so by relying on information from labor unions, trade organizations, the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, etc. This is perfectly legitimate behavior in a democracy.

Party loyalty and interest-group voting is common among Americans of all income and educational attainment levels. These habits don’t become more serious or less superficial just because one has a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.

Again, the war against “ignorant” voters is really about removing certain topics (poverty, income inequality, workplace safety, environmental protection, etc.) from public debate. Going back to Reason.com (which I follow closely because it’s more coherent and straightforward than GOP house organs), Nick Gillespie had a piece on Sunday about how younger voters would be receptive to small government if it weren’t associated with the right-wing cultural views of the Republican Party. Gillespie cites “libertarianism as the ideology of the future. Not because it stops discussion over any issue, but because libertarianism removes many of those issues from politics and put them back in places better suited to hashing out differences.”

This reminds me of Mitt Romney’s comment that income inequality should be discussed in “quiet rooms” rather than in the political arena. It would presumably not be on the agenda at the wished-for constitutional convention.

Note: Slate’s Richard L. Hasen just posted a good piece on the “ignorant voter” meme (can I call it that?) being deployed against polling places that accommodate early voting. Hasen quotes Washington Times columnist J. Christian Adams: “Early voting means stubborn voters will make uninformed decisions prematurely. Voting even one week early produces less-informed voters and dumbs down the electorate.” Hasen notes that critics of early voting do not seem to have the same concerns about absentee voting, which is used disproportionately by older, more conservative voters. Hasen concludes, “conservative critics of early voting runs don’t just mistrust early voters; they mistrust voters in general.”

Movie poster for The Great Man Votes, in which an election really does hinge on one ballot.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 9 months ago
Luckily, the Pennsylvania Republican war on my 95 year old aunt's right to vote didn't succeed. She didn't renew her driver's license but I took her to get a state-issued photo ID so she could open an account at a credit union. Came in handy when she went to vote.

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