Does low turnout threaten representative government?
Forget one-person-one vote; we are moving toward a one election-one vote future. The turnout of registered voters in Peoria for April’s municipal elections — and remember that not all qualified voters are registered — was a bit more than 17 percent. In Chicago’s collar counties, turnout ranged from around 12 percent to 16.4 percent. In Shelby County about one fifth of those registered voted; up in Rockford about 15 percent did. Springfield was a beacon of citizenly diligence by comparison; voter turnout in the capital was 28 percent.
People who choose not to choose have lots of reasons. They complain that people’s votes merely endorse money’s choices. Gerrymandered districts in effect deprive minority party members of a meaningful vote. The major parties are sclerotic and corrupt, and in most elections give people a choice between Tweedle-dum, Tweedle-dee and their dumber cousin. To these failures of the electoral system we must add the failures of the voter. The typical U.S. adult will stay at home if it’s cold or wet, and will spend more time fixing a halftime snack than reading about the races.
Public choice theorists argue that one informed vote makes a very small difference in the life of the republic, but taking the time and effort to cast that vote makes a big difference in the life of the voter. People thus see voting as akin to tending to an ailing granny even though you have no expectation of an inheritance. The economists call this rational. You might call it something else, but it is undeniably a factor.
Would government be better if more people voted? A wider plebiscite is said to confer more legitimacy to the resulting government. Factions of the American left thought the government installed after the first election of the second Bush was illegitimate because a majority of them didn’t vote for it; factions of the right would have held that a Gore administration was illegitimate because more of the left did vote for it. Principles are principles, and politics only politics. Moral legitimacy, not political popularity, has been held to be the ultimate test of a government in this country, as the Founders tried to explain to George III.
A worried national League of Women Voters insisted in a 1990s report that nonvoters are “choosing to withhold their consent.” That’s a choice too, and anyway, opinion polls suggest that people who don’t vote pretty much agree with those who do. Broadening participation thus would not materially change outcomes
Primary elections are different. Low turnouts in primary elections tend to favor zealots of the sort preferred by “committed” voters. The results are often antic. (Scott Lee Cohen comes to mind; see “The People’s Choice,” Feb. 11, 2010.) But if the majority of professed party members voluntarily surrenders its power over nominations to the party’s fringe elements, well, democratically-chosen representative government is not automatically good government, merely democratic government. As Henry Mencken once put it, democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
Government wonks have come up with many schemes to increase turnout. Some of them — longer polling hours, vote-by-mail — are being used, to no obvious good effect. One way around that problem is to make voting compulsory. Quite a few nations do, although the modest penalties they impose for not voting suggest they don’t quite believe in it. Certainly many a citizen in nations such as Australia believe that voting is a right, not a responsibility, and that a coerced vote is not a free vote. Besides, compulsory voting solves the problem of low turnout but not necessarily the problem of poor decision-making by voters. Voters who vote because they have to tend to vote either at random or straight down the party line, ignoring the candidates’ merits in either case.
I’m not sure that we face the death of democracy as a system, which has never really worked very well in this country anyway. In any event, the non-voting hordes have not abandoned democracy. The votes that matter in the halls of power belong not to individuals but citizens in the aggregate organized into advocacy groups. It is the people’s champions such the AARPs and the employee unions and the neighborhood associations and the trade groups and the professional fraternities that advance individuals’ interests in the public realm. Unelected they might be, but they are more representative (if more narrowly representative) than an official elected by a diverse and disputatious constituency can be. If you have a friend from Iraq or Saudi Arabia – or that matter the Illinois Green Party — who wants to see democracy in action, don’t bother taking him to a polling place. Hang out near the rail at the Statehouse rotunda instead.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.