Polling place
Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

I’m not in favor of compulsory voting. It probably wouldn’t work in a country as large as ours and it might even backfire. But I do believe voting is a duty as well as a right. Rights must be exercised to be preserved. It is one’s duty as a citizen to preserve them. If self-government means anything, it means individuals taking responsibility to act. Indeed, no one is going to do it for you.

I realize this might seem a bit old fashioned, even conservative. Many smart liberal writers I admire greatly have made the case that democracy belongs to those who want it. Indeed, they say, democracy may be harmed by those with little information about policy—or whose minds are filled with rainbows and pixie dust.

I find that to be a powerful argument. Before the last election, I thought of myself as a small-d democrat. The people, I said to myself, know what they want. Then a lying, thieving, philandering sadist managed to get himself elected as president of the United States. I’m a small-r republican now. The people, in 2016, voted for a madman. The people must be protected from themselves.

Ironically, they can be protected from themselves when more of them vote. Obviously, Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than President Trump, but those votes came mostly from the coasts and from districts bluer than the deep blue sea. We need more people to vote in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania—any place with a big urban center whose local politics will deliver for the Democrats.

I thought of all this when I read Dave Weigel’s recent piece in the Washington Post about how energized Democrats are to vote. Actually, no. I didn’t think of all of the above. Not at first. My first thought was a fantasia of profanity and was something to the effect of: “Why didn’t you people vote in November what is wrong with you all of this could have been avoided I can’t believe now you want to get involved so much has already been lost it’s a little late in the game to wanna act like a citizen!

Yeah, something like that.

Here’s Dave:

In a new survey, taken in the first week of April by Global Strategy Group and Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, Priorities USA found that Democrats who tend to sit home in midterm elections were unusually motivated to turn out in 2018. Fifty-eight percent of “drop-off” voters said they were extremely motivated and enthusiastic about voting in the 2018 elections, rating their interest as nine or 10 on a 10-point scale. An additional 22 percent of the voters were “somewhat” motivated to turn out.

“These voters are ready to turn out,” said Guy Cecil, Priorities USA’s chairman. “I was at the DSCC in 2006 when Democrats took back the Senate; I was at the DSCC when Republicans took it back in 2014. There wasn’t a circumstance where I saw eight out of 10 drop-off voters expressing interest in the election.”

The kicker:

The polling sample included 402 Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016 and 401 Democrats who voted in 2016 but tend to skip midterms. The latter group, they found, was more likely (61 percent to 56 percent) to be extremely motivated. African American voters, who Democrats have found difficult to turn out without Barack Obama on the ballot, were the least likely to be extremely motivated — just 49 percent. [My bold.]

You know, this is great. It really is. It’s great, really, to see Americans getting more involved. But I’m not one to say: Well, Trump is a tragedy, an epic disaster, a miscarriage of democracy, an authoritarian threat to the values and principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights…but at least people are taking an interest in their country.

No, not me. I’m more like: why did we have to go through all of this for you to act like a grownup? Of course an American over the age of 18 should take an interest in his or her country. Why would you not? Of course you should be involved, because one way or another, politics, like the Good Lord above, is going to find you. You are active or you are passive. This isn’t a game. This isn’t TV. Real people are going to suffer real harm, have already suffered real harm, because you couldn’t bother to register and vote on Election Day.

Voter suppression is real, but not insurmountable. And anyway, we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who somehow rationalize to themselves that there is something more important to do than vote in an election. And I mean every election: for president of the United States to president of the Board of Education.

The short term looks very good for the Democrats. Turnout is likely to be much larger in 2018 than it was in 2010 and 2014, both of which were historic setbacks for the president whom, I presume, these voters liked. But the long term is still a problem. It’s one thing to have a president who inspires a reactionary wave. It’s another to have a deep lasting immutable culture of citizenship and voting.

Trump is not the gift, as it were, that keeps on giving. For real progress, the kind that Barack Obama wanted, we must do it ourselves.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.