A Duty Not To Vote?

John Stossel

10/29/2008 12:01:00 AM - John Stossel

I keep hearing how important it is for everyone to vote.

Let me be politically incorrect and say that maybe some people shouldn't vote.

I know I'm swimming against the tide. Get-out the-vote groups now register young people at rock concerts. HeadCount cofounder Andy Bernstein told me: "We registered over a 100,000 people. It is so imperative that this generation's voice is heard."

But wait. Is that really a good idea? Many kids don't know much. At a HeadCount concert, "20/20" asked some future voters, "How many senators are there?" One said 12, another 16, and another 64. One girl guessed, "50 per state."

Most kids didn't know what Roe v. Wade was about. "Roe vs. Wayne?" asked one. "Segregation, maybe?" "Where we declared bankruptcy?"

Headcount's Marc Brownstein concedes, "there's a lot of uninformed voters out there." But he argued:

"Democracy is not about taking the most educated portion of the society and having them decide who's going to run the entire society. Democracy is about every individual having a voice."

I suggested that when people don't know anything, maybe it's their civic duty not to vote.

"It's an argument that really, really smacks against everything we hold dear as Americans," Bernstein replied.

Maybe it was unfair to pick on kids at a rock concert. I went to Washington, D.C., and showed people pictures of prominent Americans. I'm happy to say that everyone recognized Barack Obama and John McCain.

But only about half recognized Sarah Palin, and most didn't know Joe Biden. Few people recognized Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but everyone quickly identified TV's Judge Judy.

Economist Bryan Caplan, author of "The Myth of the Rational Voter", points out, "the public's knowledge of politics is shockingly low."

He scoffs at the idea that "it's everyone's civic duty to vote."

"This is very much like saying, it's our civic duty to give surgery advice," Caplan said. "We like to think that political issues are much less complicated than brain surgery, but many of them are pretty hard. If someone doesn't know what he's talking about, it really is better if they say, look, I'm going to leave this in wiser hands."

Isn't it elitist to say only some people should vote?

"Is it elitist to say only some people should do brain surgery? If you don't know what you're doing, you are not doing the country a favor by voting."

My ABC "20/20" segment about this enraged some viewers.

"That was a shameful piece you put together about youth voting. ... I wonder if the quality of the information in our society has anything to do with hackery like yours infesting the airwaves and drowning out reasonable discussion."

Another wrote: "You are a decrepit journalist and a poor excuse of a patriot."

And still another: "Democracy is defined by citizen participation. So you are undermining democracy. Thanks."

Someone even made a video parody mocking my story.

Clearly, not everyone understood what I was saying.

"You sit there on television and ignorantly say that all youth should not vote . . . wow."

That's not what I said. I hope that informed young people do vote.

I just don't think it's so wonderful when famous people drag uninformed and uninterested people to the polls.

One viewer raised a fair point: "You simply cannot create a litmus test for voters. At what point does a voter become satisfactorily 'informed'? Do they have to know the name of the president, vice president, both their senators? This is the problem with your argument; you don't state how informed a voter should be, just that they should be. This is a very slippery slope."

But I'm not saying that the government should impose a litmus test. God forbid. I just want clueless people to find something else to do on Nov. 4.

Voting is serious business. It works best when people educate themselves.

If uninformed people stay home on Election Day, good.

That doesn't include you.