Making voting easier won't fix apathy

Jonah Goldberg

11/15/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
Nothing warms my heart more than to see elite conventional wisdom turned on its head. A week ago, we were losing the war in Afghanistan. Today the pundits are measuring downtown Kabul for a new McDonald's and perhaps even Afghan-Disneyland (or would that be Disneystan?). Also last week, the grumbling in faculty lounges, most newsrooms and Democratic precincts was that the Supreme Court, like a Republican Robin Hood, had stolen the election from the victorious Al Gore and given it to George W. Bush. Then on Monday, a giant media consortium concluded that Al Gore could only have won in Florida if he had demanded the sort of recount thought to favor Republicans. If all overvotes -- ballots indicating more than one vote for the same office -- were recognized (of course, such ballots are never counted), Gore could theoretically have won. But Al Gore didn't press for this kind of statewide recount because his clearly overpaid lawyers knew that Bush won in 14 of the 15 counties where there were lots of "overvote" ballots. Instead, they went shopping for votes and judges wherever they thought it would be helpful. That this strategy didn't work just underscores the fact that Gore's team was not in a high-minded pursuit of a fair and accurate count; it was in a mercenary march to victory. To be fair, so was the Bush team. Which only adds to the irony. The recount the Supreme Court stopped, allegedly "stealing" the election, would have confirmed Bush as the winner -- for the umpteenth time -- anyway. Bush comes out the better because a) he had a better argument ("You can't change the rules after the election") and b) he didn't look like a sore loser. Regardless, this is all old news, deservedly relegated to the history books now that we're at war and our constitutionally legitimate president concentrates on more important matters. Besides, why pick over the bones of dead conventional wisdom when there are living dragons still in need of slaying, particularly in the movement to "reform" our voting system in the wake of the Florida fiasco? For some bizarre reason, the "lesson" of the recount is the same platitudinous silliness that created the problem. We're still being told that it should be easier for people to vote. Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democratic point man in charge of reforming our election system, insisted after Florida that he wanted a bipartisan bill making it "easy to vote and very difficult to commit fraud." Republicans pulled out of the effort, according to The Wall Street Journal, when Dodd more or less asked the ACLU and AFL-CIO to write the bill. Historically, the ACLU thinks the only criteria for voting should be whether or not you have a pulse. The AFL-CIO doesn't care if voters have pulses -- so long as they vote Democratic. But even Republicans pay lip service to the same goal -- making voting easier for everybody. Why? The assumption underlying almost every effort to "improve" voting in America is that turnout is too low. Motor Voter Laws, for example, are explicitly based upon the idea that we can get more people to vote if it's easier for them to register. That's true, of course. Similarly, we could get more college graduates -- something else we are all supposed to believe is a good in and of itself -- if we let students submit crayon drawings as term papers. Or take Internet voting, a fad among low-turnout worrywarts. The only arguments offered against online voting are that the technology isn't ready and that it might be open to fraud. The implication being, once the bugs are out of the system, voting in your underwear would be a triumph for democracy. When Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced legislation for a study of Internet voting in 1999, he declared, "I believe the Internet could make voting easier, more convenient and extremely efficient," presenting "a fantastic opportunity to reverse a 40-year decline in national voter turnout." This is classic tail-wagging-the-dog thinking. "Voter apathy" has only increased as voting has become dramatically easier. Yet, for some reason, we're supposed to assume that the remedy for voter apathy is to make voting even easier, as if the remedy for a lack of appetite is to make it easier to eat. Plus, the view that citizenship should be convenient is a pernicious one, despite its popularity. Recall how the 7 percent of voters who were too dumb to figure out the Palm Beach ballot claimed they were "disenfranchised" -- an argument roughly equivalent to saying that the government "stole" millions of dollars from me when it allowed me to pick the wrong lottery numbers. Low-voter turnout is a symptom, not an ailment. And, even then, the ailment has some good characteristics. For example, low voter participation is a sign that at least some Americans are happy with how things are going. Not voting is a sign of satisfaction and consensus. Of course, there are also negative reasons for low turnout. Most notably, there's a lot of apathy among young folks (though they are not necessarily apathetic about everything -- just voting). Regardless, making voting easier will not fix the underlying causes for low turnout any more than making the SAT easier will make students smarter. Indeed, think of voting as a citizenship test. Making it easier doesn't make citizens better; it just sets a lower standard. If people can't be bothered to vote, we shouldn't bother with them.