Many conservative-minded thinkers tell us not to worry when barely half of eligible voters bother to show up and vote. Jason Brennan, an ethics and public policy lecturer at Georgetown University, put the argument baldly:
“The median voter is incompetent at politics. The citizens who abstain are, on average, even more incompetent. If we force everyone to vote, the electorate will become even more irrational and misinformed. The result: not only will the worse candidate on the ballot get a better shot at winning, but the candidates who make it on the ballot in the first place will be worse.”
Click on www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/11/07/should-voting-in-the-us-be-mandatory-14/mandatory-voting-would-be-a-disaster
He’s bold—but wrong.
Democracy isn’t a frail extension of the merit principle; its first task is to be representative. Low turn-outs will eventually make a mockery of Lincoln’s democracy “of the people” and “for the people.” Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe that the most demanding adults do most of the voting and reliably elect the best.
Those who vote are not a random sample—a proxy for the rest of us—and they’re not necessarily the best of us either. All we know for sure is that they can swallow one of the choices on the ballot.
There are, as likely, many very well-informed people who don’t vote not because they don’t care but because they cannot accept what’s on the menu.
Let’s worry less about the listless; let’s address the problem of those fussy citizens who don’t want to empower any of the registered parties or encourage any of the key programs on the ballot.
Rather than beg or drag out those who can’t be bothered to vote, why not offer an option for those who simply don’t like any of the above? Below the list of candidates and parties, why not leave a nice clean space on the ballot to put a firm X against “none of the above?”
Partisans of the well-financed and poorly appreciated parties of the status quo, of course, will think this is trivial mischief—besides, they’ll never let it happen.
Nevertheless, this one gesture could have real value.
It would give the conscientious objector a legitimate and visible option. Simply not showing up or “spoiling” the ballot by messing with the X are actions that are open to self-serving interpretations. Incumbents can keep saying that they stayed home because they are reasonably happy with the way things are and the losers can complain that negative advertisements “suppressed” the vote.
We should be able to demonstrate that we believe our right to vote is still precious and, at the same time, say that the existing options are not good enough.
Along with learning about the winner’s lead, imagine on election night also knowing that thousands of people bothered to come out in the rain and neatly mark the option “none of the above.”
We’d start talking more urgently about why so many good active citizens can’t stomach the choices offered by the professionals.