The nice thing about being a lazy blogger is that if you want to fisk something, chances are someone else—in this case, Nick Troester—will have beaten you to it. But, lest I be accused of excessive laziness, allow me to pile on. The piece in Slate is called “Why We Hate Voting: And how to make it fun again,” by Thomas Geoghegan. Here’s a free hint: anyone who confuses civic duty with “fun” isn’t very normal to begin with. Shall we commence?
Usually, the outcome of a presidential election “depends on the turnout of the Democrats.” So says Nelson Polsby of the University of California-Berkeley. For once, I agree with a political scientist. I take Polsby to mean “Democrats” as a term of art for “most people.” By “Democrats” he means people with hourly jobs, high-school dropouts, high-school grads, single moms, single dads—anyone at or below the median household income.
But let’s narrow “Democrats” to people way down the income ladder, whose voting rate is usually less than 40 percent. Waitresses. Claims adjusters. College kids with loans. If the turnout among these people hits 50 percent, the Republicans are in trouble. Get it up to 60 percent, and Bush won’t even come close.
Actually, I think Dr. Polsby means “Democrats,” as in people who are predisposed to vote for Democratic candidates. In political science terms, we call these people “party identifiers”—they have a psychological attachment to their preferred political party. And we’ve called them party identifiers ever since 1960, when The American Voter came out.
I’ll grant that some earlier research, known as the Columbia school or sociological approach, argued that vote choice was largely a function of socioeconomic status, but The American Voter showed demography to be a rather distant causal influence on vote choice. Only African-Americans (a group oddly omitted from Geoghegan’s definition of “Democrats,” though perhaps this omission is understandable when you realize that he’s dealing with the limosine liberal set who read Slate) show the sort of bloc voting in American society that Geoghegan attributes to American social and economic groups. Union members and “blue-collar” workers, for example, are only weakly Democratic, as are singles, on the order of 60–40. And even then there can be significant cross-over effects; the “Reagan Democrats” were hardly a myth.
I know that the country’s turned to the right. But we’d still have the New Deal if voters were turning out at New Deal-type rates. (Between 1936 and 1968, voter turnout in presidential elections fell below 56 percent just once. Since 1968, it has never exceeded 56 percent.) So how can Democrats get the turnout of all eligibles up to 65 percent?
I doubt that seriously. One important causal factor Geoghegan omits is the lowering of the national voting age in 1970, which brought in a new cohort of voters who were unlikely to vote. Moreover, recent scholarship suggests that low apparent turnout in the U.S. is due to an increase in the non-eligible population (felons and non-citizens, which aren’t part of the “voting age population” used for redistricting) and the use of frequent elections (U.S. jurisdictions average at least one election per year, including local and state elections and primaries, while most other industrialized democracies only have elections, on average, every two years—and typically have elections for national office at different times from elections to local offices). The fact that the U.S. holds elections on weekdays rather than weekends is also an important factor in lowering turnout.
What are Geoghegan’s remedies?
First, offer two ballots, a long one and a short one. Let’s call the short one Fast Ballot. President. Congress. Governor if there’s a race on. That’s all. You’re done. Someone else will vote the long ballot.
Nick already explained what an idiotic idea this is. But in many states (including, I believe, Illinois), you can vote a party-line ballot just as easily. It seems more productive to encourage the adoption of (or return of) party-line boxes on ballots, then. (You can thank the Progressives for getting rid of party-line voting in many states.)
His second remedy apparently revolves around making the entire election process an excuse to go on a bender. No, I’m serious:
One free drink. Let’s take the 10 biggest population centers. In each one, set up a business-type council, full of media types and celebrities, to push voting. In September and October, have them sign up bars and restaurants to put up a red-white-and-blue logo on Election Night. What does the logo mean? With your ballot stub, first drink is on the house. Soon everybody will want to have a logo, the way in the New Deal, businesses showcased the Blue Eagle. Put the word out on college campuses. Get them to compete to throw the biggest party. Pump it up, the way we’ve done with Halloween.
No doubt, the Progressives are rolling over in their graves at this idea (you can thank them, too, for laws that require bars and liquor stores to be closed on Election Day in some states). In most (all?) states, it’s illegal to offer an inducement for voting—even if that inducement is given without regard to vote choice. From a theoretical point of view, I don’t think such laws are worthwhile—in fact, I actually wrote a paper on Philippine politics once that argued (in part) that citizens ought to have the right to sell their vote to the highest bidder. Regardless, this proposal is simultaneously idiotic and impractical (and illegal, to boot; not that that’s ever stopped any campaign tactic in the past, mind you).
Furthermore, the premise that any of this will help the Democrats is, simply put, absurd, and borders on patronizing: apparently, Geoghegan conceives of the Democratic base as a bunch of louts who can only be encouraged to vote if they are given a really dumbed-down ballot and are promised a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon for their trouble. If this is what Democratic elites think of their own supporters, they should count their lucky stars if any of them bother to show up in November to cast a ballot for John F. Kerry—assuming he deigns to accept the nomination before then, that is.