The Right Opinion

Mountain Out of a Molehill

By George Will · Dec. 20, 2012

WASHINGTON – The poet Carl Sandburg supposedly was asked by a young playwright to attend a rehearsal. Sandburg did but fell asleep. The playwright exclaimed, “How could you sleep when you knew I wanted your opinion?” Sandburg replied, “Sleep is an opinion.”

So is nonvoting. Remember this as the Obama administration mounts a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory.

Attorney General Eric Holder considers it self-evidently alarming that 60 million adult citizens were not registered in 2008. He wants Washington to register everyone automatically. “The arc of American history,” he says, “has bent towards expanding the franchise.” But the fact many people do not register to vote is not evidence that the franchise is restricted other than by voters' inertia.

Holder's argument for trusting Washington, which does so many things badly, to superintend elections capably should be judged against this loopy statement by him: “We should rethink this whole notion that voting only occurs on Tuesday.” This year, voting began in some states in September; as much as 40 percent of votes were cast before Election Day; 12 states allow online registration.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder's civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is “an endurance contest” involving a long wait in line, frequently because of questions about voters' registrations. But the Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, says:

“One of the reasons that state voter registration rolls are in such poor shape today – with large numbers of voters who are dead, have moved or are noncitizens – is because of the restrictive standards imposed by the federal government in 1993 by the National Voter Registration Act. That law made it very difficult to remove ineligible voters. Local jurisdictions were sued so often by the Justice Department when they tried to remove ineligible voters, many stopped trying to clean up their lists at all. That is why there are many places around the country where the number of registered voters is greater than the Census says there are individuals of voting age.”

Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. Notice, too, the logic of Perez's thesis that “our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders.” Therefore the public good would be served by penalizing nonvoting, as Australia, Belgium and at least 10 other countries do. Liberals love mandates (e.g., health insurance). Why not mandatory voting?

In 1960, 62.8 percent of age-eligible citizens voted. In the 13 subsequent presidential elections, lower turnouts than this have coincided with the removal of impediments to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements). Turnout has not increased as the electorate has become more educated and affluent and as government has become more involved in Americans' lives. There are four obvious reasons for nonvoting.

One is contentment. Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable. Second, the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.

Third, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in 48 states – an excellent idea, for many reasons – means many state races without suspense. (After their conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in just eight and 10 battleground states, respectively.) Fourth, gerrymandered federal and state legislative districts reduce competitive races.

Because the likelihood of any individual's vote mattering is infinitesimal, and because the effort required to be an informed voter can be substantial, ignorance and abstention are rational, unless voting is cathartic or otherwise satisfying. A small voting requirement such as registration, which calls for the individual voter's initiative, acts to filter potential voters with the weakest motivations. They are apt to invest minimal effort in civic competence. As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls – or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting – the caliber of the electorate must decline.

It has been said that for every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong. Washington soon may seek a complex “solution” – pre-emption of states' responsibilities; federal micromanagement of elections; eventual coercion of lackadaisical citizens – to the non-problem of people choosing not to vote.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group


enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA said:

"Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder's civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is "an endurance contest" involving a long wait in line" You know , voting too often has to be an endurance contest, I'll bet the typical Democrat voter is hard pressed to vote more than 6-7 times on election day, what with running to multiple precincts and taking well deserved breaks and the mandatory lunch hour. So of course, we had to have early voting as well too insure they wouldn't have to stand in line too long or often in one day, rather they could vote once a day for seven days- not 7 times in one day.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:32 AM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

A prisoner exchange? Holder for Hammar.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:33 AM

Ted Shoemaker in Madison, Tennessee, USA said:

Another deterrent to voting: None of the viable candidates are acceptable.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:58 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

You can bet your last dollar, if after Jan you have one left, that any time the government comes up with a solution to any problem it will automatically become worse. Staying out of State's right to purge their voter roles is what the Federal government should do but it won't because the Demorats would lose too many voters. That is why they fight so hard against voter ID laws. No voter fraud would put a big dent in the Demorats vote total. Any idiot who doesn't vote has no right to complain about anything the government does.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 10:22 AM

Wardeman in Michigan said:

Mr. Will, you did not mention the real and most important reason for this Administration's effort. The real reason is that uninformed, unintelligent, and those lacking the skills to research issues almost always vote for the Democratic candidate or position.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 11:16 AM

Tapdaddy in Indiana said:

"Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps."
So let's leave the voters of Cabrini Green to make the decision of who our representatives are.

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 12:11 PM

billy396 in ohio said:

I will never agree that a winner-take-all electoral system is wise or fair in any way. In a mythical state of 30 million people, with 100% voter turnout, a candidate with 15 million and one votes should get ALL of that state's votes? How anyone could think that's fair is beyond me. What about the wishes if the other 14.999 million voters?

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 1:43 PM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA replied:

In your proposal the Electoral College would not be necessary. Just a national vote. Getting one more vote than the other opponent puts you in the White House. A democracy rather than a Republic.

I'm all for the EC. I believe it was divinely inspired. It forces a candidate to be a national candidate and not just appeal to the large urban areas. In a democracy the only place you would see a candidate campaign will be in those large urban areas. Flyover country will be ignored.

This is a good read by Walter Williams:

Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 3:12 PM

Robinius in Broomfield, Colorado replied:

Agreed, Kevin. People keep saying the Electoral College is obsolete and that is only true if you prefer a pure democracy, not a Republic. The EC is especially important to small population states such as Colorado and our northern neighbor, Wyoming. The Walter Williams article you reference explains it well, if one has an open mind, that is.

Friday, December 21, 2012 at 12:53 AM