Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 7, 2012

Good and Bad Reasons to Limit Voting

By N.S. Palmer

Graphic: United Federation of Teachers.

Like most informed people, I’ve watched in disgust as over a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted laws to prevent Democrats from voting.

They don’t come right out and say that’s what they’re doing, of course. To hear them talk, it’s about preventing “vote fraud.” That follows a script from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group that works for America’s super-rich against the 99.9 percent.

Those same people were curiously incurious about vote fraud in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. The 2000 election was stolen by rigged electronic voting machines, voter suppression, and “spoiled” ballots in Florida — where the election machinery was controlled by George W. Bush’s brother Jeb. The Bushes’ dirty tricks made the vote count so close that a recount was needed. Then, Bush’s friends on the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to the recount and they awarded the presidency to Bush. Rather than cast doubt on the legitimacy of the U.S. government, Democratic candidate Al Gore conceded without a fight. Later, a consortium of six major newspapers (including The New York Times) and the University of Chicago did a comprehensive recount and analyzed the data under various assumptions. In every scenario, Gore won.

The 2004 presidential election was stolen by the Bush-Cheney machine in much the same way, but this time in Ohio rather than Florida. A University of Pennsylvania statistician found that based on the data, it was virtually impossible for Bush to have won the 2004 election. But the ever-subservient news media ignored the evidence of massive vote fraud when it benefitted the Bush-Cheney regime.

At the retail level, however — that of individuals or small groups of people conspiring to vote fraudulently — very few cases have been documented. Republican cries of “vote fraud” are simply a pretext to prevent voting by groups likely to vote Democratic: minorities, young people, the poor, and the elderly.

In the eyes of Republicans and their super-rich corporate paymasters, such people have no business voting in the first place. They’re not “the right kind of people.” If they were good enough to vote, they’d be rich. And corrupt. And white.

The Republican agenda is simple: Government should be of, by, and for the rich and the politically connected. Voting by the common people is a nuisance that should be minimized as much as possible.

Democrats want more people to vote for the same reason that Republicans want fewer people to vote: The majority favors ideas, programs, and policies that Democrats say they support, even if their actions often contradict their promises.

Progressives believe that for democracy to be legitimate, voting should be extended as widely as possible. No group should be deprived of the vote, either directly or through subterfuge.

But It’s Not That Simple

But the issue isn’t quite as simple as either side pretends. Democracy as an institution was not handed down to us on tablets from Mount Sinai. It has taken many forms in many different times and places.

In the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, literacy tests were used to prevent black citizens from voting. That’s an unsavory purpose. The law was also used to harass and humiliate black citizens. That’s despicable.

On the other hand, consider the official justification for the law: In order to be properly informed about the issues, voters had to be able to read. If they couldn’t read, then they couldn’t be properly informed. If they weren’t informed, then they couldn’t vote intelligently. Society has a legitimate interest in limiting the vote to people who can vote intelligently. You can say that the argument was abused, and it was, but it’s not a crazy argument. It makes sense.

In the early days of the American republic, voting was limited to white male property owners. Women couldn’t vote. Even if they were free and not slaves, blacks couldn’t vote. That limitation of voting rights led to a particular kind of government and political system. It was worse in some respects than our system, and better in other respects.

Even in the birthplace of democracy, ancient Athens, only white male Athenians could vote. Women couldn’t vote, and were considered about equal in status to horses. Foreigners couldn’t vote, and were considered fit for enslavement. That limitation of voting rights led to a government and society that was pretty good for white male Athenians. Its results were pretty good for all of Western civilization that came afterward, giving us foundations in science, philosophy, art, and politics. The cost was what we’d call injustice. Athenian males disagreed.

The Real Issues in Voting Rights

The real issues in voting rights are:

  • What values do we consider most important?
  • What kind of society and government do we want?
  • And who counts as part of “we”?

From a political-science standpoint, democracy only works in small political units up to populations of about 500,000. When a political unit is bigger than that, democracy breaks down because (1) it’s impossible for the majority to know what’s going on, and (2) each individual’s vote is so diluted that it has almost no chance of making a difference. Ancient Athens had a population of about 250,000 — of whom only about 30,000 could vote.

With larger populations, democracy degenerates into oligarchy, just as it has in the United States. Democracy is no longer about rule by the majority, because that’s practically impossible. Instead, it becomes a device by which the ruling oligarchy deceives the majority into consenting to whatever the oligarchy does for its own benefit. It’s a way to give the majority of people the illusion that they have some control without actually giving them control. In essence, voting is transformed from an exercise in governance into an act of consent to be ruled and exploited by the oligarchy.

That said, there is some wider benefit in having people feel that they are part of the society. That applies even if the political system is corrupt. Voting rights are a way to recognize people as full citizens, giving them status and respect. People who feel that they are part of the society are more inclined to cooperate with others, help the needy, and contribute in other ways that the ruling oligarchy neglects because it’s too busy stuffing its bank accounts and starting wars.

For those reasons, I think that voting rights should be extended as widely as possible, even though the people voting are unlikely to have any power. It’s not a political but a social exercise: People who can vote are part of our society. We, as their peers, show them respect and acceptance.

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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