Not too long ago, President Barack Obama proposed that voting be made mandatory. I cannot see why making people who are disengaged and uninformed about politics vote would lead to any improvement in American politics. I suspect that Mr. Obama is counting on those disengaged and uninformed people to deliver more votes to the Democrats and more support for the sort of policies he supports. In fact, if this is his intention, he may be disappointed. As this article in the Washington Post suggests,universal compulsory voting may not make much of a difference in the balance of power between the parties.
But perhaps I am being too cynical about Mr. Obama’s motives. Mandatory voting would lead to increased voter turnout which surely would be good for democracy, wouldn’t it. Low voter turnout in the United States has been something of a scandal in recent decades. Voter turnout has generally been around 60% in Presidential elections and 40% in midterm elections. This low turnout seems to indicate a loss of faith in the political process among Americans. If we had a higher voter turnout, our democracy would be more robust, right?
I am not so sure about any of this. Personally, I believe that the problem with American politics is not that too few people are voting, but too many. That is to say, too many of the people who do go out and vote are among the disengaged and uninformed. I think our politics would be improved by putting limits on the number of people eligible to vote.
To start with, I think we really need to raise the voting age to thirty. More than twenty-five centuries ago Aristotle argued that young men should not be involved in politics because they lack experience and are carried away by their passions. I imagine that Aristotle would think we were insane to allow men as young as eighteen, not to mention women of any age, to vote in national elections. Very few people under the age of thirty, and all too many over that age, have the experience and maturity necessary to make wise decisions about their country’s future. Young people are often the most enthusiastic supporters of dictators and demagogues.
There is the argument that if one is old enough to fight for their country, they are old enough to vote. I don’t think that is a particularly good argument. The skills and experiences necessary to serve in the military are not the same as those necessary to make responsible decisions about the country, and what of the great majority of young people who do not serve their country? Still, it might be fairly argued that young people who have served in the military are likely to be more mature and responsible then their peers and perhaps the right to vote should be extended to veterans of any age.
Which brings us to the idea proposed by Robert Heinlein in his science fiction book Starship Troopers; that only veterans be permitted to vote and hold office. This idea has often been criticized as Fascist or militaristic, which only demonstrates the ignorance of the critics. In the world Heinlein describes everybody is eligible for government service in some capacity, it need not be strictly military, and it is matched with the applicant’s abilities. The service is not a sinecure, real and demanding work is involved, even it if only amounts to peeling potatoes in KP, and not many complete their term. The idea is that only those who have demonstrated a willingness to place the needs of the community above their own desires should have the right to vote. Non-veterans cannot vote but have all the rights that any citizen in a twentieth century democracy would have, and Heinlein hints that the Federation government is somewhat more libertarian than our democratic governments since the voters aren’t continually voting benefits for themselves.
I think this idea has some merit, although I can see some flaws. There probably would be a more informed and engaged electorate and if voting were seen as a right to be earned through service rather than just something handed out to anyone who reaches a certain age, it would be more valued and taken more seriously. On the other hand. if the franchise wee restricted to a small minority, it is difficult to see why the people with the vote wouldn’t be tempted to vote themselves all kinds of privileges at the expense of non-voters.
Not too long ago one of my children was going through the process of getting her driver’s license. It occurred to me that we put effort into teaching prospective drivers the various traffic regulations and require them to take tests to show that they can operate a motor vehicle before granting them a license to drive. This is held to be necessary and good because of the dangers to the driver and others if the driver lacks the ability to drive safely. Yet, he give almost no preparation and do not test the ability of a prospective voter to make important choices about the future of the country. Surely putting the future of the nation in the hands of incompetent and unprepared voters is a far more serious matter than the relatively few people affected by an incompetent and unprepared driver. We ought to have voter ed classes in every high school which should cover the basics of what used to be called civics. When a voter reaches the voting age, he should be required to take a test in order to receive a voter’s license which should be renewed at regular intervals, just like a driver’s license. If an applicant fails the test or if the license is not renewed, he may not vote in the next election, but he can take the test again after the election. Again, this will make voting something to strive for, rather than something simply handed out and those people who do apply for a license and pass the test will take their duty as a voter more seriously. Having renewable voter’s licenses provided at no cost to the successful applicant will also help to cut down on voter fraud.
But, maybe instead of limiting the number of people eligible to vote, we should weigh the vote in favor of the more responsible elements of society. In his short story, “The Curious Republic of Gondour“, Mark Twain explained that the constitution of the Republic gives every citizen the inalienable right to a vote. Unfortunately this meant that the scum of the Republic had the same amount of political influence as the intelligent and successful, which was leading to the ruin of the country. The leaders of Gondour decided that they could not take away any citizen’s vote, but there was no reason why everyone should have just one vote. They permitted people to have additional votes based on wealth and education. The votes based on education were more prestigious than the ones based on wealth because a voter could lose money but not education. This might not be a bad idea and I think it could be arranged without a constitutional amendment.
Of course, none of these schemes are likely to be put into effect or seriously considered. We could at least try to do a better job educating voters about our system of government and to approach the issues with reasoned consideration, but I am afraid our political leaders prefer dumb and excited voters. Part of what the TEA Party has been doing has been to educate people about the constitution and look at all the hostility that engendered.