Monday, November 01, 2004

Democracy and Voting

Democracy is a wonderful thing. In its ideal form, I suppose, everyone would be sufficiently motivated to vote, and every voter would care enough to learn about the issues and the candidates in every election.

But since democracy and freedom are firmly linked, the right to vote includes the right not to vote. That principle is violated in countries that have laws requiring every citizen to vote. Even requiring a minimum percentage of the electorate to vote in order to have a valid election is inherently undemocratic. Free citizens must have the right not to vote--assuming, of course, that they are willing to accept the outcome of elections they do not participate in.

Unfortunately, some citizens who do vote often don't understand the issues, the candidates, or even the nature of the offices they are voting on. In a democracy, each vote has the same value, and that means that the opinion of the least informed among us carries the same weight as that of the best informed. And, the ignorance of the least informed can sometimes be appalling.

What can be done? Should we have voter qualification requirements, even nonpartisan tests to determine whether a voter knows enough to cast a ballot?

I know this is sensitive. Many are suspicious of obstacles to voting, even to the ludicrous extent of not wanting voters to have to present identification. I agree that we can never permit qualification requirements that would prevent categories or classes of people from voting just because of who they are. I also understand that an actual test of knowledge, even the most simple test, is impossible for a lot of reasons. But shouldn't voters at least have to prove their identity and citizenship, vote in the correct precinct, and understand the balloting process well enough to execute it properly? Sadly, according to some, even that is too much to ask.

I think we can at least change the way we encourage people to vote. Specifically, our standard "get out the vote" drives are ill-conceived. Instead of urging everyone to vote as though that were the most important aspect of an election, why not urge citizens to make the effort to learn about the issues and the candidates and then vote? The emphasis should be on encouraging people to become qualified voters.

In the election tomorrow, it shouldn't be the size of the turnout that concerns us. It should be the competence of those who turn out.


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