Votes for the Rabble!

      3 Comments on Votes for the Rabble!

I want to highlight something William Barr said in yesterday’s hearing that touches on a sore point for me. It doesn’t necessarily speak to his qualifications as Attorney General, and I don’t think is outside the mainstream of American thought, but I want to talk a little about its implications.

Here’s the C-Span link. This bit is a response to Pat Leahy, who asked him about a panel he had been on, talking about voting participation. I haven’t found anything that panel, but Sen. Leahy asked Do you believe Voter I.D. laws and similar restrictions on voting actually promote democracy by discouraging voters who are not really paying attention to what's going on? Here’s Mr. Barr’s answer in full:

What I said there was that, in that panel discussion there was a lot of people complaining about the lack of—that many Americans aren't educating themselves about the issues and they are passive. It was important to—and also that the voting participation was dropping. My position was that the underlying problem is the citizen who is not paying attention to public events, not educating themselves about the issues and so forth and that the non-voting is a symptom. I didn't see driving up participation as addressing the primary underlying problem. That was my point. I pointed out that when the constitution was adopted, the turnout was about 33%, my understanding. Then I said, low participation has been a problem from the very beginning. My view is that voter turnout shouldn't be artificially driven up without also addressing the issue of an informed citizen rate, which I think is a problem.

Now, on some level this isn’t incorrect. If voting was mandatory, citizens would not respond by becoming better-informed. Voting turnout doesn’t measure the information level of the populace, and if we want a better-informed populace, as we probably do, working toward increasing voter turnout is not a good way to do it.

On a much deeper, and much more important level, however, this attitude is very, very wrong. William Barr doesn’t get to decide who is or is not sufficiently well-informed to vote. Nobody gets to decide that for any other citizen. That’s a vital principle to participatory self-government—without that principle, elections are just another system of organizing the bureaucracy. Mr. Barr is going to be Attorney General of the United States, and it’s important that he recognize this principle—or at least that those of us who do recognize this principle make a noise about it.

The truth is that every anti-democratic restriction on who gets to vote is predicated on some notion that the excluded group is not worthy, somehow, of participating with the rest of ‘us’. Mostly, it was obvious that those groups were incapable of self-governance and intent on driving the deserving and decent citizenry into despair. They were poor people, illiterates, people of color, women, non-Christians, teenagers, rabble. They were the underlying problem, according to people very like William Barr.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Votes for the Rabble!

  1. Chris Cobb

    I suspect that if people were required to vote, many would take the responsibility more seriously. Being impaneled on a jury for mandatory public service seems to lead to responsible behavior by the jurors more than to irresponsible behavior. There’s peer pressure involved there, of course, but if the social attitude was that everybody has to vote because it’s important, there would be additional peer pressure on people not to mess around with their civic responsibility.

    Anyway, there’s probably been research on this.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      I suppose if our political culture was such that passing mandatory voting laws would be politically expedient, then the peer pressure would already be substantial.

      In truth, I’d like some state to try it—something like a $25 citation for not voting in a general election (or maybe $1 for every position not voted on?) with the option of voting ‘present’ and abstaining without charge, and of course lots of options for early or absentee voting. I suspect that the rates of information would not go up much, as judged by surveys and such, but that people would take their vote seriously and vote pretty much the way they would if they had more information. But yeah, there’s probably research and such, and other nations have implemented similar things, so there’s real empirical data somewhere, too.


  2. Michael

    I question the judgment of anyone like William Barr who would dare to quote turnout rates a couple of centuries ago and say that “low participation has been a problem from the very beginning” without talking about the closely coupled fact that disenfranchisement was a problem from the very beginning. Is he aware that black people and women couldn’t vote? Does he view that as troubling or not? Does he believe that the amendments giving black people and women the vote artificially drove up voter participation? Should those amendments have been conditional on establishing that black people and women were sufficiently informed citizens? Were black people and women not sufficiently informed during the many decades that they were denied the vote? Is William Barr incapable of seeing the perspective of anyone who is not a rich white male, or does he simply believe that it is unimportant to try?


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