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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Contrarian View: Low Voter Turnout Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing

If you're young and single like me and live in the Cultural District of one of the nicest cities in America, then you don't have to look very far to find something interesting to occupy your time and attention on weekends (or anytime). I still pick up a copy of Fort Worth Weekly once a week, though, if only to keep up on what's going on in my neck of the woods. FW Weekly has the social scene in Cowtown covered, and I sometimes enjoy their articles on local, off-beat stories as well. When it comes to political commentary, though, the publication leaves a lot to be desired. Example: an opinion piece by one Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue in last week's issue entitled "Apocalypse by Apathy."

Wheatcroft-Pardue laments the "tragedy" of "how few" people voted in the recent midterm elections. He starts off with an anecdote about an elderly woman he encountered while block-walking on the North Side a few weeks before the election. (For those of you not familiar with Fort Worth, the "North Side" is a largely Hispanic, poorer-than-average area on--where else--the north side of town. To many locals, it has two components: the Stockyards and "the ghetto". It is an important source of votes for Democrats.) This woman told him that she was "sick of the government and all the things they’re doing." He deduced that she would not be voting in this election and offered one possible cause: "the grab bag of pseudo-hysterical news coverage, much of it without context or common sense, that she and the rest of us had endured these past months."

I can't say I take issue with his characterization of the media coverage of and seemingly incessant punditry concerning ISIS and Ebola, two things Wheatcroft-Pardue specifically mentioned in the next sentence, but I don't recall seeing or hearing any "pseudo-hysterical news coverage, much of it without context or common sense," of things the government has been doing (save for the inane ramblings of MSNBC's on-air talent about crazy conservatives enacting voter ID laws and curtailing women's "reproductive rights", a newly popular euphemism for butchering unborn children), which, according to the writer, was what this woman actually referenced as making her "sick".

But to the meat of the article: Wheatcroft-Pardue reminds us of President Obama's post-election statement that he’d heard "everyone who voted" as well as "the two-thirds of voters who chose not to" and suggests, "Maybe we should all try to do likewise. This poor woman I talked with on a Saturday morning in October represents so many of those who chose not to vote."

Stop right there. The sentiment, which Wheatcroft-Pardue evidently shares, that the President expressed with his one-third/two-thirds remark is based on an assumption that the Americans who were eligible to vote in this election but chose not to were sending a message by not voting just as those of us who did vote sent a message with our choices at the polls. If you agree with that, then it begs the question: What message do you think these non-voters sent by not voting? To attribute the deliberate choice millions of Americans made this year to not vote to "apathy" is unfair and incorrect. Do Wheatcroft-Pardue and others who think like him (I assure you there are many.) honestly believe that none of these people determined that they had no good options on the ballot or nothing worth voting for or made another thoughtful, principled decision not to vote?

The cynical explanation for low voter turnout propounded in this article and elsewhere also allows individuals and groups whose policies and ideas were soundly rejected in the latest election to delude themselves--and try to convince others--that a lot more people actually agree with them and share their vision for America; they just didn't turn out to show their support when they had the chance. I have to admit: that is a tempting thought, and I almost fell victim to it in 2012, though I quickly realized that there was nothing to substantiate it. Also, 2012 was not nearly as bad for Republicans as 2014 has been for Democrats. Even as we were devastated by the re-election (by a substantial margin) of Barack Obama and Democratic victories in nearly every tight U.S. Senate race, ill-gotten though they were, those of us on the right could take solace in the fact that the GOP retained a sizable majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and dominated the election at the state level. There is no comparable consolation prize for left-wingers in the results of this election cycle.

Wheatcroft-Pardue goes on:

In this go-round, 17 percent of the electorate — generally older, whiter, more affluent than the general population — got to change the course of our nation and perhaps our planet, effectively vetoing what a larger, more representative electorate OK’d in 2012. I don’t think anyone should feel good about that.
I do. Here's why: Aside from the obvious importance of protecting minority rights from the tyranny of the majority, voters who vote in every election are by definition more "engaged" than those who only vote in presidential election cycles. While Ken is correct that the midterm electorate is typically "older, whiter [and] more affluent than the general population," we are also better-informed and more likely to keep up on important issues and know where the candidates stand on the issues and understand the consequences of our votes than the electorate in years when the presidency is on the ballot. It's curious (and disturbing) that Wheatcroft-Pardue appears to be more concerned about a minority of the country "effectively vetoing what a larger, more representative electorate OK’d in 2012" than he is about the decisions of clueless drones overwhelming the will of intelligent voters who make reasoned, well-informed choices based on truth and reality.

Not surprisingly, he then proposes something terrible:  

I think it’s time we try an idea from Down Under: In Australia, if you don’t vote, you get a ticket. Surely voting is as much a civic duty as serving on a jury or paying our taxes. Since we already pay a fine if we shirk jury duty or dodge paying taxes, why shouldn’t we pay a penalty for not voting?
Because, Ken, votes have consequences for the country as a whole, and unlike the consequences for "shirk[ing] jury duty" or not paying taxes, the consequences of uninformed or misinformed people voting are long-lasting and can't be effectively remedied. Millions of Americans who voted to re-elect President Obama may have buyer's remorse, but we're stuck with the guy as our commander-in-chief 'til 2017, unless he dies or quits. And, no, voting is so not "as much a civic duty as serving on a jury or paying our taxes." Voting is more like military service. You should be allowed to do it if you want and meet certain basic requirements, but no one should be forced to do it. And, just like joining the Armed Services, it's very important that you know what you're doing, and you should only do it for the right reasons, though the government shouldn't prevent you from voting just because it doesn't like your motive(s).

Wheatcroft-Pardue also takes a parting shot at our state's voter ID law and trots out the oft-repeated but completely baseless claim that it is "blatantly designed to suppress the votes of the poor, college students, and minorities". This is one of multiple claims about voter ID laws that have been thoroughly discredited, but I digress. Making it easier to register to vote and cast your ballot may be a good idea, but making it easier to commit voter fraud isn't. Neither is penalizing eligible voters for not participating in elections. Being governed by politicians you don't like seems to me punishment enough for not voting when you have the right.

He says that "we should all be outraged by" low voter turnout. This is a classic example of outrage directed at one of the consequences of a problem, rather than at the problem itself. What's causing low voter turnout? Again I say that if you're not well-informed, then you shouldn't vote. And, if eligible voters are staying away from the polls because they can't, or don't know enough to, make a well-informed decision, then Wheatcroft-Pardue and others who are so upset over how low turnout was in this election should refocus their ire on the failure of would-be voters to pay attention to what's going on, form opinions, and study the candidates and their positions (as well as the merits of any ballot measures). Curiously, Wheatcroft-Pardue closes by stating that "there can be no true consent of the governed if so very few bother to vote." That may be so, but just like consenting to participate in a dangerous sport or undergo an invasive medical procedure, it must be informed consent to be meaningful.