Opinion: Low voter turnout not a problem

December 20, 2012


— The poet Carl Sandburg supposedly was asked by a young playwright to attend a rehearsal. Sandburg did but fell asleep. The playwright exclaimed, “How could you sleep when you knew I wanted your opinion?” Sandburg replied, “Sleep is an opinion.”

So is nonvoting. Remember this as the Obama administration mounts a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory.

Attorney General Eric Holder considers it self-evidently alarming that 60 million adult citizens were not registered in 2008. He wants Washington to register everyone automatically. “The arc of American history,” he says, “has bent towards expanding the franchise.” But the fact many people do not register to vote is not evidence that the franchise is restricted other than by voters’ inertia.

Holder’s argument for trusting Washington, which does so many things badly, to superintend elections capably should be judged against this loopy statement by him: “We should rethink this whole notion that voting only occurs on Tuesday.” This year, voting began in some states in September; as much as 40 percent of votes were cast before Election Day; 12 states allow online registration.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder’s civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is “an endurance contest” involving a long wait in line, frequently because of questions about voters’ registrations. But the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, says:

“One of the reasons that state voter registration rolls are in such poor shape today — with large numbers of voters who are dead, have moved or are noncitizens — is because of the restrictive standards imposed by the federal government in 1993 by the National Voter Registration Act. That law made it very difficult to remove ineligible voters. Local jurisdictions were sued so often by the Justice Department when they tried to remove ineligible voters, many stopped trying to clean up their lists at all. That is why there are many places around the country where the number of registered voters is greater than the Census says there are individuals of voting age.”

Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. Notice, too, the logic of Perez’s thesis that “our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders.” Therefore the public good would be served by penalizing nonvoting, as Australia, Belgium and at least 10 other countries do. Liberals love mandates (e.g., health insurance). Why not mandatory voting?

In 1960, 62.8 percent of age-eligible citizens voted. In the 13 subsequent presidential elections, lower turnouts than this have coincided with the removal of impediments to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements). Turnout has not increased as the electorate has become more educated and affluent and as government has become more involved in Americans’ lives. There are four obvious reasons for nonvoting.

One is contentment. Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable. Second, the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.

Third, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in 48 states — an excellent idea, for many reasons — means many state races without suspense. (After their conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in just eight and 10 battleground states, respectively.) Fourth, gerrymandered federal and state legislative districts reduce competitive races.

Because the likelihood of any individual’s vote mattering is infinitesimal, and because the effort required to be an informed voter can be substantial, ignorance and abstention are rational, unless voting is cathartic or otherwise satisfying. A small voting requirement such as registration, which calls for the individual voter’s initiative, acts to filter potential voters with the weakest motivations. They are apt to invest minimal effort in civic competence. As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls — or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting — the caliber of the electorate must decline.

It has been said that for every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong. Washington soon may seek a complex “solution” — pre-emption of states’ responsibilities, federal micromanagement of elections, eventual coercion of lackadaisical citizens — to the non-problem of people choosing not to vote.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago


I love that word. Otherwise typical GW whining.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Will forgot to mention that keeping voter turnout low maintains the two-party duopoly under the control of plutocrats.

Pal 5 years, 4 months ago

Also, forgot to mention that one side of the duopoly is mostly Low Information voters. ergo..Obama wins.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

That statement is not supported by facts.

Pal 5 years, 4 months ago

Posters on this web site notwithstanding of course.

Corey Williams 5 years, 4 months ago

Rush has been using that line a lot. Plagiarize much?

Pal 5 years, 4 months ago

Rush? You listen to him and are on a first name basis?

....People that use the English language tend to use combinations of words that are the same....just so you know. Low information has been around for years as an advertis.....whats the point....you are on a first name bases with Limbaugh.

tomatogrower 5 years, 4 months ago

"Turnout has not increased as the electorate has become more educated and affluent and as government has become more involved in Americans’ lives. "

I'm not sure about the "more educated" part. Many people can tell you all about their favorite celebrity, but can't name their senator. More people are getting their information from the internet without fact checking it. They think they are informed, but they are being fed lies. Recently this happened when a quote by Morgan Freeman was going around, and Mr. Freeman came out and said he never uttered the words. There was also an email going around about how Israel arms teachers, which turned out to be not true; they have security guards in schools with guns. Many people believe their taxes have gone up in the last four years, and in reality their taxes have gone down. People believe that Obama is a Muslim, but his speech after the school shooting sounded like a Christian sermon.

I know several people who didn't vote, because they thought their vote for president wouldn't count in Kansas anyway. But they don't realize that their lives are more impacted by local politics than by national. They ignore the most important elections, local and state. Most people would rather vote for the best dancer and singer than people who will make decisions about OUR, empathize on our, government.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

His 3rd and 4th examples seem like problems to me.

Winner take all electoral representation seems like a bad idea, and gerrymandered districts as well.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Both of which maintain the political party duopoly, so changing them will be very difficult.

Orwell 5 years, 4 months ago

"…federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory."

George Will has abandoned any pretext of honesty. He could as easily, and as dishonestly, claim uniform voting standards are a step toward murdering kittens, or Republicans.

National standards would assure that my vote in Kansas is not devalued by other states' restrictions consciously designed to suppress "certain segments" of the electorate.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

The excuses will become more arcane, miniscule and desperate as they work towards an electoral triumph in 2016.

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