Friday, November 17, 2006

You may be able to legislate morality, but you can't outlaw apathy

Sometimes someone will recommend compulsory voting to enliven the franchise. I'd like to discuss why I think it's as effective as using a sledgehammer to clean a window.

The motivating complaints usually include voters thinking their votes don't count (particularly when the candidate they vote for loses), or are ignored by the real decision makers, voters aren't interested enough in election issues to bother making the trip, and voters being so dissatisfied with all the candidates that they effectively vote against every candidate by staying home.

Well, we have mandatory taxation and jury duty, so why not command performances at the polling location?

Okay. Would it really help, though? How many people look closely at their taxes just because they're required to pay them? If the IRS filed 1040s for everybody and just sent a copy of the form with a check or bill for the refund or debt, how many people would really review every line to make sure every item was in order? I think someone's trying to make a horse drink, here.

"Oh, but you can still refrain from casting a ballot once you've gotten to the poll, if you want to abstain." If I am allowed not to vote, why should I have to show up to abstain? Is gambling on apathetic voters thinking "Well, as long as I'm here" really what we want? I'm all for an equal vote for every citizen, but how many citizens who wouldn't have bothered to vote are going to try to make a concerted effort in preparation and figure out how they feel about the current issues and candidates?

Not as many, I suspect, as the ones who vaguely recognize political headlines and sound bites that go into or run counter to the policies they already hold, and then try to find some way to apply it all to the unfamiliar-looking names and proposals they now see in the ballot before them.

People have the right to vote that way, but how is getting more people to vote poorly an actual improvement? Practical suffrage aside, there are many other important issues out there that I'm not involved in but could be. Maybe I don't have a knack for them, or I'm not interested, or maybe I can only spread myself so thinly. After a point, I end up accomplishing less by trying to do more. Perhaps I've underprioritized a few things, but being told or strongarmed into rearranging my priorities isn't what will convince me that a new arrangement is better.

Unless apathetic voters see good fruit come from being forced to show up at the polls, they're not all going to magically see the wisdom in executing their civic duties. Frankly, the problems that keep them away are not close enough to the polling locations for any meaningful connections to be made.

"Well, it worked in Australia! When they mandated voting in 1924, voter turnout rose from 60% of the electorate to 91%. It's never been below 90% since then, and is often even higher." Yeah, see, it's really funny, because enforced laws by their nature force law-abiding people to do what is prescribed. If you're forcing people to show up, you don't have a magical happy democracy, you've got fascism. I bet a lot more people would drive 55 mph on the interstates if we required them to do so, too.

It's that postmodern word magic again. A situation that is problematic as far as it's symptomatic of larger problems is identified, and corrections are proposed. The corrections, heavy-handed and blind as they are, achieve exactly what they were intended to do, no more and no less; and the bigger problem, now with fewer symptoms, is declared resolved. Whatever.

"Higher voter turnout, even if many voters don't actually cast ballots, legitimizes a political system and what comprises it." No, I'm afraid it doesn't remotely do so. Sure, it looks nice when fractions of the electorate near unity show up with enthusiasm and confidently vote for or against something, to the best of their judgment and desire, and if things actually happened that way, then they would actually be pretty good, but mandating an appearance isn't the same as mandating enthusiasm and diligent preparation. The former may fall within the bailiwick of Caesar, but the latter is impossible.

Saddam Hussein had great voter turnout, and he always won by a landslide. The only people who thought his self-perpetuating administration was above the board were in the throes of a rectal-cranial inversion.

Then again, we do pay people a pittance for jury duty. Maybe we could do the same for voting, or at least make it a national holiday. With some of the talk I hear about minimum wage and socialized medicine, it's a wonder nobody's made the argument that some people can't afford to stand in line and read a ballot for a couple hours, even just one hour, instead of working. There's a lot we could do to make voting more convenient, beyond opening the polls really early and closing them really late so people can stand in long lines before or after work.

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