(Editor's note: This is an edited version of a commentary that first appeared in the January 1995 issue of "The Freeman," published by the Foundation for Economic Education.)
This year's campaign is thankfully about to end. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the approaching election, we will once again have to listen to a familiar whine: "Isn't it simply awful that so few people vote. What we need are laws that make it easier to vote or laws that penalize people if they don't."
Don't get me wrong. I cherish the right to vote – so much so that I don't want it belittled by those who think that just showing up at the polls is all it takes to ensure the survival of representative government. There are some people who should vote, and then there are others – millions of them, unfortunately – who would do representative government a big favor if they didn't.
Embedded in the popular complaint about the decline of the American electorate is at least one assumption that is demonstrably false: that higher voter turnout is needed to somehow "make democracy work."
In the first place, "democracy" is perhaps the most oversold political concept, drummed uncritically into our heads at an early age as the moral high ground of governance. Some measure of public participation in whatever government we have is certainly preferable to dictatorship, but not because it carries with it any assurance of good or limited government. It does not guarantee a free society. An electorate can democratically vote itself into bankruptcy and slavery. Americans, in fact, have been doing that for most of the last century.
What people commonly think of as "democracy" is preferable to dictatorship because it permits changes in government policy without the need to shoot, hang or guillotine anybody. Those changes, however, will be in whatever direction public opinion is blowing at the moment – good or bad, smart or stupid, helpful or destructive.
Besides, America is not a democracy – and was never intended to be. There are some things our Founders wisely felt should not be subject to majority vote, such as individual rights to life, liberty and property.
In the first half-century of America's experience as a nation, voter turnout was often much lower than it is today – frequently less than 20 percent of adult males actually cast ballots. Part of this is explained by the requirement of property ownership for voting in many states. Most of our Founders and early leaders believed that people ought to have a direct and personal stake in the system before they could vote on who should run it. The fact that in those years we managed with low voter turnout to elect the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams suggests that maybe we should make voting more difficult, not easier – a privilege to be earned, not an unbridled right to be abused.
Then there are those who want to make it so easy to vote that you wonder how anything so costless could be the least bit meaningful. Some years ago, I read a blurb about a Colorado organization called "Vote by Phone." I don't know if the group is still around, but the idea still is - allowing Americans to cast their votes from home instead of at local polling locations.
Under the plan, all registered voters would be given 14-digit voter identification numbers. Voters would call a toll-free number from touch-tone phones, punch in their ID numbers, and vote on candidates and ballot issues by punching other numbers. Whether or not the science exists to resolve the inherent technical, security and privacy questions such a plan presents, there exists no reason at all to make voting any easier than it currently is.
Low voter turnout does not endanger our political system. Here's what does: politicians who lie, steal or create rapacious bureaucracies, voters who don't know what they are doing and people who think that either freedom or representative government will be preserved by pulling levers, punching ballot cards or making phone calls.
The right to vote, frankly, is too important to be cheapened and wasted by anyone who does not understand the issues and the candidates. The uninformed would be doing their duty for representative government if they either became informed, or left the decisions at the ballot box up to those who are. How did the idea that it is a virtue to vote for the sake of voting ever start?
Our political system – resting as it does on the foundations of individual liberty and a republican form of government – is also endangered by people who vote for a living instead of working for one. H.L. Mencken had them in mind when he described an election as "an advance auction of stolen goods." They use the political process to get something at everyone else's expense, voting for the candidates who promise them subsidies, handouts and special privileges. This is actually anti-social behavior that erodes both our freedoms and our representative form of government by conferring ever more power and resources upon the politically well-connected and the governing elite. I don't know about you, but I don't want these people to have it so easy that all they have to do is pick up a phone to pick my pocket.
Surely, the right to vote is precious and vital enough to be worth the effort of a trip to the polling place. Anyone who won't do that much for good government isn't qualified to play the game.
Moreover, politicians who bemoan ever lower voter turnout shouldn't be so critical of those who don't vote. If a nonvoter's excuse is that he doesn't know what he should to vote intelligently, he should be thanked for avoiding decisions he's unprepared to make and encouraged to educate himself. If a nonvoter is simply disgusted with lies and broken promises, or just doesn't want to choose between Scarface and Machine Gun Kelly, then maybe it's the politicians who should listen and learn; the nonvoters are trying to tell them something.
Sure, it would be nice if more people voted – but only if they know what they're doing and if they're not doing it to grab something that doesn't belong to them. There's nothing about voting by telephone or other such schemes that makes people smarter or more honest, and there's nothing about stuffing the ballot box with more paper that ensures either freedom or representative government.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.