Stay home; don't vote

Posted: Oct 22, 2004 12:00 AM

 Here they come -- the earnest exhortations to get out and vote. You'll be hearing it from television newscasters, MTV, newspaper ads, radio talk show hosts, weathermen, schoolteachers ... you get the idea. Everyone has a duty to vote, they will say.

 No they don't. If a person is utterly ignorant about matters of public policy, then he or she has a solemn obligation to refrain from voting. The percentage of people who fall into the utterly ignorant category is estimated to be about 25 percent of eligible voters.
Now before turning to the matter of ignorance, let me acknowledge that I am in sympathy with the sentiment that seems to motivate some get-out-the-vote efforts. Curtis Gans, for example, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, worries about absentee, Internet and voting by mail not just because these methods increase the possibility of fraud, but because they diminish one of only two remaining communal civic activities on the calendar (the other being celebrating the Fourth of July). I agree that voting is a civil sacrament. I agree that people should take it seriously, even reverently, but ...

 There is also a great deal of pious hooey out there about how "smart" the voters are. Well, some are. But some are some are not. Ilya Somin, a professor at the George Mason School of Law, published a study in the Cato Institute's magazine about voter ignorance that offers a peek into the empty spaces between many voters' ears.

 Seventy percent of voters apparently were completely unaware of the fact that the federal government adopted a huge prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare during the term of President Bush. Fully 65 percent did not know that the government had passed a ban on partial birth abortions. Some 58 percent acknowledged that they knew little or nothing about the Patriot Act (a figure Somin argues persuasively is probably low-ball). Sixty-one percent thought, incorrectly, that there had been a net job loss in 2004. Only 32 percent were aware that Social Security is one of the two largest expenditure areas in the federal government. Only 25 percent could correctly state that the Bush administration does not believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Only 22 percent knew that the current unemployment rate is lower than the average for the past 30 years.

 Political observers make much of swings in voter sentiment -- like the elevation of Republicans to majority status in the House of Representatives in 1994. Yet Somin reports that in the election of 2002, only 32 percent of voters knew that the Republican Party controlled the House. Hmmm.

 Frankly, if Americans want to remain ignorant about the people who have the power to tax their money, condemn their property, declare war, inflate the currency to worthlessness, permit terrorists to prey on innocents and much, much more, that is their choice. But why oh why must the chattering classes ceaselessly urge them to inflict this ignorance upon the rest of us?

 Some, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have made a fetish of preserving the sovereign right of the American voter to remain an ignoramus. Following the 2000 vote-counting debacle in Florida, that state's legislature adopted a reform that required, among other things, the posting of a list of "voter rights and responsibilities" in every polling place. As James Taranto of reported, the ACLU issued the following press release announcing a lawsuit to challenge the law's constitutionality:

 "The suit, title Major v. Sawyer, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. It challenges the posting in all polling of a list of ?voter responsibilities' which lists, among other requirements, that a voter ?study and know candidates and issues,' 'bring proper identification to the polling station' and 'know how to operate voting equipment properly.

 "The plaintiffs clam that these provisions, and their prominent display as required by the new Florida law, are a throwback to the days of literacy tests, and may disproportionately impact race and language minorities in exercising the right to vote."

 Educating oneself about the important public policy questions of the day is the barest minimum we should ask of citizens. Instead, lots of our most prominent opinion makers indulge in the fantasy that ideally, all eligible voters (and some illegal aliens?) should vote. If you don't know the basics of government or policy, do us all a favor and stay home on Nov. 2.