Mountain out of a molehill
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 alarming that 60 million adult citizens were not registered in 2008. He wants Washington to register everyone automatically. But the fact many people do not register to vote is not evidence that the franchise is restricted other than by voters' inertia.
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.”
Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. 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.
Third, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in 48 states — an excellent idea, for many reasons — means many state races are without suspense. 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 acts to filter potential voters with the weakest motivations. 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 nonproblem of people choosing not to vote.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pirates show depth in earning victory over Rockies; Polanco has big night
- Healthy, confident Steelers LB Shazier ready for full speed ahead
- LaBar: The upgrade of The Wyatt Family in WWE
- Federal court ruling could have impact on New Kensington-Arnold school monument
- Crash-prevention technology changes face of auto industry
- Timing drives former KHL star Plotnikov
- Daily Courier columnist knew, loved Connellsville community
- Earlier start, free meals among changes as Connellsville Area schools start Monday
- Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Fischer in spotlight as meeting nears
- Cops nab 4 in Monessen drug hangout
- Lineman Groh back from injury, ready to help Mustangs