iPod Democracy

Jonah Goldberg

11/16/2007 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

A recent poll of New York University students found that two-thirds of them would trade their right to vote in the next election for a year's tuition. And 20 percent said they'd give up their right to vote for the next president in exchange for a new iPod. Half said they'd sell their right to vote - forever - for $1 million.

Now, none of this really tells us anything new. We know that lots of Americans, particularly young ones, don't place much value on their right to vote. If they did, they'd vote more.

The left and the get-out-the-vote fetishists - often a distinction without a difference - argue that the answer to low voter turnout is to make it easier to vote. There's a certain logic here. The problem is that we've been making voting easier and easier for a long time now, and turnout has generally been declining.

A further problem is that voting voluptuaries think our democracy would be greatly improved if we got more reluctant voters to the polls. That's why, for example, in the '90s the left pushed Internet voting as a cure-all for democracy's ills. In 1999, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. proclaimed: "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."

Last year, activist Mark Osterloh masterminded an Arizona referendum asking voters to make ballots double as lottery tickets. Osterloh admitted that he was trying to bribe people into the voting booths.

The thinking behind both gimmicks is largely the same. Jackson believed our democracy would be improved by hearing from people who couldn't be bothered to vote unless they could do it from their couch. The Arizona scheme worked on the assumption that our national discourse would be enriched if the crowd that hangs out at Keno parlors and liquor stores had more of a say.

And, sure as shinola, you can expect that any day now someone will argue that we should give away iPods at polling stations in exchange for casting a ballot.

Though they will deny it until they are blue in the face, part of what's going on here is the fact that behind the get-out-the-vote crowd's virtuous rhetoric, there is a powerful left-wing agenda at work. That's one reason why most of the Celebrity-Voter Education Industrial Complex is little more than a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. These people think that if everybody voted, America would lurch to the left. Osterloh says his real holy grail was universal health care, and he believes higher turnout would achieve it. And surely no one thinks Rep. Jackson believes increased voting would usher in a new era of limited government and tax cuts.

The liberal lion John Kenneth Galbraith summed up the attitude well 21 years ago when he declared, "If everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years."

There's one hitch: it's simply not true. The best studies on this question suggest that at the national level, the political differences between voters and nonvoters are minimal. As election analyst Stu Rothenberg put it a decade ago, "There is no compelling evidence that nonvoters are so distinct from voters that they constitute a bloc ready to alter the fundamental balance of power in this country."

If more liberals took this fact to heart, they might be more open to a better way to improve our civic health: make voting more difficult. I can already smell the hate mail.

Look, I am as opposed as anyone to writing bigotry into electoral law. But perhaps the reason why so many people hold their votes so cheap is that their votes are, in fact, cheap. A heartbeat and existence on this planet for 18 years are the only qualifications to vote for American citizens.

What would be so bad about discrimination, properly understood? Not based on race or income, but on knowledge and commitment. Every election year, the race comes down to "the undecideds," many of whom are undecided because they don't pay attention, don't much care and are still vexed by the task of discerning the difference between Republicans and Democrats. These are our kingmakers?

Would it be so awful if voters had to pass the same test of basic civic literacy that immigrants must pass to become citizens? What if we made the right to vote something to brag about? Something to aspire to? Is high turnout among people willing to hawk their vote for an iPod really that much better than high turnout among people who hold their franchise dear?