Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2014

Currently: 59° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

OTHER VOICES:

A mountain out of a molehill

Another view?

View more of the Las Vegas Sun's opinion section:

Editorials - the Sun's viewpoint.

Columnists - local and syndicated writers.

Letters to the editor - readers' views.

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

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 that 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 are 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 nonproblem of people choosing not to vote.

George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 4 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. George Will is right. People have a right to vote and a right not to vote. If you support the former, you must also support the latter. Those who want to vote, will do so regardless of the difficulties. Those who don't choose to vote, won't regardless of how easy it is made.

    CarmineD

  2. The opinion expressed by not voting would be better expressed by casting a blank ballot - or, in Nevada alone, voting for "None of the Above." Although most elections have at least ONE item on the ballot you should be able to agree/disagree with explicitly.

  3. I agree that voting should not be mandatory. However, I think that the "reasoning" in this column is invalid. He argues that "A" (federalizing voter registration) will lead to "B" (mandatory voting). He doesn't tell the reader why it would.

    It is similar to saying that banning asault weapons (30+ clips) will lead to banning handguns, shotguns, and rifles. It's the "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" mentality. But A does not equal B. Furthermore, decision makers negotiate and draw lines to differentiate between A, B, etc....I believe that this column, like so many others, makes a mountain (assuming mandatory voting) out of a molehill (federalizing voter registration).

    It is also unreasonable to say that "the likelihood of any individual's vote mattering is infinitesimal." If that were true, no one needs to vote.

    I don't understand why Will says that American stakes of politics (determined by election results) are low. He says that "essential elements of happiness," which I define as food, clothing, shelter are not at stake. People who must rely on our social safety net would beg to differ with that.

  4. Many in the silent majority don't approve of AG Holder. Many don't approve of Congress. Gee, let's connect the dots. Why aren't they voting?