November 25, 2008

A democratic mandate

The basic problem with voluntary voting lies in the concept known as self-selection bias.

With the election season now behind us, we are reminded that our voter turnout is one of the lowest in the developed world. It is indeed telling that we deem a turnout of around 59 percent of the population eligible to vote “shockingly high.” Even with an impressively galvanizing Democratic ticket and the most concerted get-out-the-vote campaigns ever undertaken, we can barely marshal half the population into the voting booths. Perhaps we should consider making voting mandatory.

Of course, the first and most vehement objection to the idea is that a loss of freedom will inevitably ensue. How can the government force us to do what we don’t want to do? But this argument is mouthed with such others as, “Every American should have decent healthcare,” and “We need to spend more on education,” both of which advocate government-sponsored theft. Making voting, the bedrock of democracy, mandatory is far less dangerous than permitting the government to steal one’s money and to spend it on shrimp farms and Woodstock museums.

Essentially, then, the basic problem with voluntary voting lies in the concept known as self-selection bias. It’s a simple idea: if all of the people in a given country are asked to vote, only some will, for those who vote are naturally more politically active and older and, as such, generally skew election outcomes. But aren’t those who vote better informed and possibly more intelligent? Many may indeed be, but we must understand that those who aren’t may have useful opinions about the country and that their voting may be quite valuable in the aggregate. In fact, several political scientists (such as Richard Lau of Rutgers and David Redlawsk of the University of Iowa) have even suggested that ostensibly “rational” voters make poorer decisions, primarily because their votes tend to be partisan (due in many cases to a confusing surplus of information). Besides, similar arguments were once advanced to bar blacks and women from voting; while this does not discredit contemporary versions, it suggests that the benefits of having only the “enlightened” cast their votes may be exaggerated. We should also not overlook the fact that many, like me, do follow politics and are informed but think that the costs of voting—it is not an insignificant time commitment, and the chances of one vote affecting anything are astronomically slim—far outweigh the benefits. Only laziness keeps those of us of this mindset from voting; a government mandate would remove our only obstacle.

But there are those who have grievances against the government and do not vote in protest or on principle. I would argue that this problem can be remedied by allowing voters to select no candidate on the official ballot form; they would, however, still be forced to come down to a ballot center or to file an absentee ballot. Those adults who do not vote out of laziness would probably select a candidate, while those who do not vote on principle would be able to legitimately abstain. (And, of course, there would be religious exemptions; Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not vote.)

Having dealt with the various objections, it’s worth considering the benefits that might come with compulsory voting. There is the obvious: The 19 countries that currently enforce the practice frequently see turnouts that approach 100 percent. (It is fitting to mention here that although compulsory voting is frequently associated with dictatorships, several thriving democracies, among them Belgium, Australia, Turkey, and Chile, presently mandate voting). But there is another hidden benefit: Under compulsory voting, we would likely save money. Vast sums are spent in this country by private and governmental organizations to purchase ads and organize campaigns designed to encourage people to vote. In addition to reclaiming this money, the government would also realize some from the fines imposed on those who do not vote.

Ultimately, we should not seek to dissuade those with little information from voting but instead to encourage them to participate in the political process. Perhaps we could spend some of the saved money on campaigns of education, not patronization. (Anyone who’s seen MTV’s “Rock the Vote” campaign will know what I’m talking about.) For, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, only governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” are legitimate. If half the population doesn’t express its views, can the government be truly said to have the willing and enthusiastic consent of the governed? “The Other Half,” to borrow a phrase from Jacob Riis, does, after all, live in this country, and it is critically important that its members be heard.

Arieh Smith is a first-year in the College.