Everybody Should Vote!

One of the crazy-making things about elections in this country, and particularly low-turnout non-presidential elections, is that we’ve lost a presumption that used to be a goo-goo truism: it’s a good thing for everybody to vote. Nowadays you get the feeling–not just from Republicans but from pollsters and the MSM–that there’s something unsavory about people voting when they’re not “enthusiastic” about it. Along with this is the suggestion that encouraging people who aren’t enthusiastic about voting or politics or the candidate choices to nonetheless vote is some sort of dark bearing a slight aroma of fraud.

There’s an age-old conservative ideological argument often embedded in the contrary presumption against universal voting–I discussed it at some length here. But people naturally are reluctant to fully articulate the belief that only those who hold property or pay taxes should be allowed to vote; that’s why such beliefs are typically expressed in private, with or without a side order of neo-Confederate rhetoric.

More often you hear that poor voter turnout is a sign of civic health. Here’s an expression of that comforting (if not self-serving) theory by the Cato Institute’s Will Wilkinson in 2008:

[L]ower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?

First of all, everything we know about the people least likely to vote is not congruent with an image of self-satisfied, happy citizens enjoying a “lack of pique” or trusting one another too much to resort to politics. But second of all, nobody’s asking anyone to stop living their lives and raising their kids and going to work in order to become political obsessives. Voting, and even informing oneself enough to cast educated votes (or to affiliate oneself with a political party that generally reflects one’s interests), requires a very small investment of time relative to everything else. And if the concern here is that voting interferes too much with “normal” life, shouldn’t we make it as convenient as possible?

Everybody should vote, and everybody’s vote should count the same–that goes for my right-wing distant relatives who think Obama and I want to take away their guns, and for people struggling with poverty, and for people fretting that those people want to take away “their” Medicare, and for people trying to rebuilt their lives after incarceration. And it goes for people who aren’t happy with their choices because failing to vote simply encourages the same old choices to persist. Hedging on the right to vote takes you down a genuinely slippery slope that leads to unconscious and then conscious oligarchy and even authoritarianism. And so to paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, we should not look at eligible voters and ask why they should vote, but instead ask why not? There’s no good answer that doesn’t violate every civic tenet of equality and every Judeo-Christian principle of the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.