In this post I am going to highlight the dire shortcomings of one line of argumentation used in support of expanding voting access. I am not, however, going to give my opinion on whether or not voting access should be expanded. If you are a proponent of expanded voting access, this should be a welcome critique; by highlighting some areas needing improvement in the popular argument, I hope to create an opportunity to make a better, stronger argument. For the opponent of expanded voting access, I hope to provide some ammunition to help shoot down this frustratingly common and painfully sophomoric line of reasoning. For the agnostic, undecided or uninformed, I hope to provide an alternative analysis to the issue of voting rights. All of this is to say, whichever side of the argument you prefer, you’re welcome 🙂
Before I begin, I will acknowledge that there are other, better arguments in favor of expanding voting access than the one which I am going to critique. I am specifically, deliberately, examining only one argument, and the weakest one at that. Nothing I say should be taken to settle (or even attempt to the settle) the question of whether or not to expand voting access. If the reader finds the concept of critiquing an argument without necessarily rejecting a proposition incoherent, they would probably be more comfortable consuming a processed, artificial and easily-digestible argument like, “your team bad, my team good.” Social and corporate media have no shortage of these kinds of positions, so simply close this tab and open twitter and the world should start to make sense again.
“If the reader finds the concept of critiquing an argument without necessarily rejecting the proposition incoherent, they would probably be more comfortable consuming a processed, artificial and easily-digestible argument like, “your team bad, my team good.”
Assuming the above was sufficiently brusque to drive away those with flimsy philosophical sensibilities, I will now examine the argument in defense of expanding voting access on the grounds that voter fraud is relatively uncommon.
That voter fraud is uncommon is a typical response to claims about “rigged” elections. In a study by Dr. Lorraine C. Minnite of Columbia University, it was concluded that voter fraud claims are typically false, typically made “by the loser of a close race,” and typically the result of “mischief and administrative or voter error.”http://www.projectvote.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/Politics_of_Voter_Fraud_Final.pdf. The Brennan Center’s seminal “Truth About Voter Fraud” report found incident rates “between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.” https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/truth-about-voter-fraud. Given the low rate of incident, the argument goes, we needn’t guard against the occurrence, or, more specifically, we should feel comfortable relaxing the requirements intended to prevent it from occurring. Hopefully the mere articulation of the logical steps makes the flaw in the argument obvious. If not, consider an analogy.
In the UK, private ownership of handguns has been prohibited by law since the 1996 Dunblane Massacre, where over 30 people, mostly children, were killed or injured. By way of comparison, we’ve had about 8 school shootings with more than 20 casualties in the US since 1996, to say nothing of mass shootings that took place outside of schools, or schools shooting where less than 20 children were murdered or injured (there are dozens of these). Presumably, the far lower rates of gun violence in the UK versus the UShttps://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/06/16/gun-violence-united-kingdom-united-states/85994716/ are a result of their more restrictive policies. You simply cannot shoot someone if you don’t have a gun.
However, If we apply the logic of the voting rights advocate to this case, we would end up with something like, “because a lot of people don’t shoot each other under the status quo, we should feel comfortable repealing the gun ownership laws we have.” This assumes that because something is the case (very few people shoot each other) it will continue to be the case, even if circumstances change. For a wonderful account of how circumstances and situation determine behavior, especially moral behavior, I recommend John Doris’ Lack fo Character available here. Instead, the opponent of expanded voter access should argue that, rather than existing in spite of the current laws, the dearth of voter fraud is actually the result of the current voting laws. Therefore, an argument that uses the positive consequences of a given law as evidence that the law should be repealed or relaxed is nonsensical. While many good arguments in favor of expanding access can be made, the fact that voter fraud is currently rare is not one of them.The ironic inversion of positions here, regarding the necessity of federal authority, is not lost on me. I am currently working on a paper examining the role, (or lack thereof) of logical consistency … Continue reading
“The opponent of expanded voter access should argue that, rather than existing in spite of the current laws, the dearth of voter fraud is actually the result of the current voting laws.”
As one counter, the proponent of expanding voting rights access might argue that the law is not the fundamental detriment to illegal action. Rather, they might assert, individuals are socialized to follow the rules of society. The social permissibility of an action is the primary (de)motivator in moral situations, such as the general impermissibility lying and cheating, both of which undergird intentional voter fraud. British people are not choosing not to shoot each other because they don’t have access to firearms, or because murder is illegal, the argument could go, but simply because they’re good, solid Brits. This is actually an assertion to which I am sensitive, and with which I tend to agree. However, even the least cynical among us would have to admit that if you have a gun in your home your chances of accidentally shooting someone are infinitely higher than if one is never present. Whether one feels this represents an unacceptable cost given the benefit, the need for personal responsibility or the justification for government intervention will roughly divide the individual into the relevant camps, with regard to gun control.
Stepping away from the central thesis somewhat, I also see the argument for expanded voter access as missing the point. Even under current voter access, we typically see around halfhttp://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data of the eligible electorate declining to cast their vote. Naturally, those who make their living engaging with the electoral process (politicians, campaign operatives, news networks) will tell you that this is some kind of failing on the part of the voter, that non-voters are lazy, selfish or immoral. Instead, I would like to offer the possibility that low voter turnout reflects a failing on the part of the politicians and political system. One of the truisms of campaign work (and here I am speaking from 5 years of professional electoral and issue campaign management experience) is that “not-the-other-guy” fails to motivate the majority of the time. As much as people may hate the opponent, if they don’t love something about their candidate they aren’t going to get up and vote on election day. If we assume this is true, what does our dismal voter turnout tell us about our candidates? To me it says there’s nothing about them worth liking.
“What does our dismal voter turnout tell us about our candidates? To me it says there’s nothing about them worth liking.”
In the 2020 election the United States saw record high eligible voter turnout, with nearly twenty million more people (representing about a 8% increase) casting their votes than in the previous presidential election.Ibid In an interesting correlation, President Biden began his term with an approval rate of 57%https://news.gallup.com/poll/329348/biden-begins-term-job-approval.aspx. One year later, he has dropped to 40%,https://news.gallup.com/poll/389033/biden-year-one-approval-ratings-subpar-extremely-polarized.aspx not even two full basis points higher than former-President Trump, who holds the dubious distinction of the all-time lowest year one approval rating.Ibid If we assume that people voted in such volume because they approved of Biden’s campaign promises, it is not unreasonable to assume that, seeing him fail to fulfill these promises, many people might wish they hadn’t voted for him, or even voted at all. Indeed, the roughly 40% of Americans who chose not to vote might point to Biden’s actual performance, rather than his campaign promises, and say “this is why.”
Incidentally, just as I do not see not wanting to vote for a poor candidate as a personal failing on the part of the voter, I do not see the failure to do a good (or even passably acceptable) job leading the country as a failing of the particular individual who gains power. (See, I told you I had a rosy view of humanity.) Rather, I see this as systemic failing. It is not possible, under our current system, to be both the kind of person who can win an election and the kind of person who will be a good ruler. However, that is a topic for another post.
“Saying you want more people to play, while knowing the game is rigged, might only signal virtue, rather than actually be virtuous.”
Assuming that my tangent is actually relevant and somewhat convincing, what ultimate good will expanding voter access accomplish? Is merely allowing more people the opportunity to participate in a farcical election really of value? Saying you want more people to play, while knowing the game is rigged, might only signal virtue, rather than actually be virtuous. Would not the greater, more significant value be to make the elections actually mean something, or to make the elected beholden first (or, ideally, exclusively) to the electorate? In cases like this, I try to remind myself of Volatire’s aphorism; the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Regardless of how much faith one places in the types of individuals who seek political power, it should be irrefutable that evidence of the lack of voter fraud is not a sound argument for repealing existing voter fraud prevention measures. Those who wish to make a convincing argument for expanded voter access would do well to abandon this line in favor of a stronger argument. I, for one, look forward to hearing it.
Here’s to the day.