As we sort through the various voter suppression measures being deployed by Republicans in the several states, it’s important to remember that pretty recently it was Gospel Truth that everyone should vote. That tradition has slipped away, to be replaced by a number of disreputable ideas, as I discussed today at the Washington Monthly:
There’s an age-old conservative ideological argument often embedded in the contrary presumption against universal voting–I discussed it at some length here. But people naturally are reluctant to fully articulate the belief that only those who hold property or pay taxes should be allowed to vote; that’s why such beliefs are typically expressed in private, with or without a side order of neo-Confederate rhetoric.
More often you hear that poor voter turnout is a sign of civic health. Here’s an expression of that comforting (if not self-serving) theory by the Cato Institute’s Will Wilkinson in 2008:[L]ower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?
First of all, everything we know about the people least likely to vote is not congruent with an image of self-satisfied, happy citizens enjoying a “lack of pique” or trusting one another too much to resort to politics. But second of all, nobody’s asking anyone to stop living their lives and raising their kids and going to work in order to become political obsessives. Voting, and even informing oneself enough to cast educated votes (or to affiliate oneself with a political party that generally reflects one’s interests), requires a very small investment of time relative to everything else. And if the concern here is that voting interferes too much with “normal” life, shouldn’t we make it as convenient as possible?
The big issue here is that the presumption that universal voting is a good thing has been gradually replaced by the presumption that Americans must prove their worthiness to vote. And that’s a big deal:
Hedging on the right to vote takes you down a genuinely slippery slope that leads to unconscious and then conscious oligarchy and even authoritarianism. And so to paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, we should not look at eligible voters and ask why they should vote, but instead ask why not? There’s no good answer that doesn’t violate every civic tenet of equality and every Judeo-Christian principle of the sisterhood and brotherhood of humanity.
Restricting the franchise is a old and disreputable idea whose time has nonetheless come once again. It’s important to throw it right back once again.