The founding generation was keenly aware of the fact that the public they had empowered to shape the destiny of their new republic might be primarily composed of simpletons.
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” wrote James Madison in an 1822 letter advocating expanded access to publicly funded education in order to ameliorate the condition he outlined. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.” For the left, it increasingly seems, knowledge is overrated.
The Father of the Constitution and America’s fourth president was not alone in fearing the world that the willfully ignorant would vote themselves. Of course, the Constitution’s drafters also understood that not everyone would participate in the system they had crafted even if they were eligible to do so. Either out of disgust, or indifference, or simple ignorance in the affairs of state, the Founders afforded to Americans the freedom to disengage from the political system.
“Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread,” Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin averred. It would be a mistake to presume that this remark is meant as a disparagement. In many ways, it is a complimentary observation that many Americans prioritize matters that are of more relevance to their daily experience than the trivia occupying the minds of policymakers in a far-flung national capital.
“[P]olitical ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people,” Somin added. “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all. That is because there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election (about 1 in 60 million in a presidential race, for example).”
For all their wisdom, the Founders were not especially fond of enfranchisement. Subsequent generations of Americans have sought to correct for this over-caution and most municipalities now err on the side of inclusion when it comes to voting rights. Great wars and incredible social upheaval was endured so that the right of African-Americans, women, and those of military service age to vote was enshrined in the Constitution. In general, Americans are supportive of extending the right to vote to those who are of majority age and are stakeholders in the system.
Recently, however, the left has become infatuated with conflating the rights associated with enfranchisement with the exercise of that franchise. This is a fallacy. Of late, progressives have embraced extending voting rights to demographics with a dubious grasp on civics and often conflate choosing not to participate in the electoral process with being prevented from doing so.
“Lowering the voting age to 16 in [San Francisco] is not about redesigning adulthood but redesigning civic participation,” declared San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos on Twitter with the accompanying hashtag “#Vote16SF.” That’s right: A proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in that city has been tabled until next year when city council members could approve putting the measure on the November, 2016 ballot.
The Bay Area isn’t the only progressive enclave expanding the franchise out to those who might not have a sound command of the issues. While a variety of American municipalities have in the past expanded the right to vote out to non-citizen permanent residents, the right to vote has primarily been exclusively reserved for those who are citizens or have achieved legal status. Until recently, that is. This year, the New York City council drafted a measure making it just one of eight municipalities (six in Maryland and the seventh the city of Chicago) to extend the right to vote in local or school board elections to illegal immigrants.
“Noncitizen voting would probably enhance the power of Democrats — not that they particularly need it in this city,” Baruch College professor Doug Muzzio said of the measure that was too extreme even for the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
But many progressives view expanding access to the ballot as a half measure. Full enfranchisement can only be realized if participation in the electoral process is made mandatory. “Other countries have mandatory voting,” President Barack Obama said in March, demonstrating once again his uniquely tenuous grasp on the concept of American exceptionalism. “It would be transformative if everybody voted — that would counteract money more than anything.”
The president added that countries like Australia and Belgium have instituted compulsory voting, and the failure to participate in elections can result in fines or even prison sentences. “The people who tend not to vote are young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.”
Obama is not advocating for expanded access but compulsory participation. He has defined a freedom as complete only if it is enjoyed at gunpoint.
The president’s statement is of a kind with a comment made by Hillary Clinton who recently endorsed the far-left’s hobbyhorse of mandatory and automatic voter registration.
“The need to register to vote is just about the most modest restriction on ballot access I can think of, which is why it works so well as a democratic filter: It improves democratic hygiene because the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots,” National Review’s Daniel Foster wrote in opposition to Clinton’s proposal. “If you want an idea of what political discourse looks like when you so dramatically lower the burden of participation that civic idiots elect to join the fray, I give you the Internet.”
Interestingly, Foster added that he favors expanding voting rights to a class that might want to vote but has been denied that privilege: former convicts. Championing the voting rights of some ex-cons who long ago paid their debts to society is a measure that has been supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. And while expanding this group’s access to the polls would likely augment Democratic vote totals, it has been embraced by GOP icons like Senator Rand Paul because they believe these individuals are endowed with the civic virtue required of a voter.
One could argue that expanding the right of minors and illegal immigrants to vote and instituting a policy of mandatory voter registration are designed to increase access to the ballot for those who want to participate, but the president let the veil slip when he endorsed frog marching those reluctant voters to the polls. None of this is about enfranchisement; it’s about enhancing one party’s political clout unburdened by having to sell their policies to an informed electorate. By giving groups like minors, non-citizens, and the disinterested access to the ballot, the left has inadvertently confessed that they are increasingly unable to pitch their policy preferences to the system’s traditional stakeholders. Rather than address this deficiency, they have determined that new stakeholders must undergo forcible ascension.
It is increasingly becoming taboo to stand in defense of those who take the rights and demands of citizenship seriously, educate themselves, and endure basic hardships like registering to vote and knowing when Election Day is. It will never be popular to oppose extending voting rights to what Daniel Foster calls, perhaps uncharitably, “civic idiots,” but there is something to be said for privileging the informed voter.
If the left had their way, the informed and civic-minded would have their vote diluted by the newly enfranchised 16-year-old undocumented immigrant who is only voting in order to avoid paying a penalty. That is the true injustice.