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Of quality v. quantity

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Opinions


In my quest to keep abreast of the latest political commentary, I recently came across a Newsweek article by the conservative pundit George Will. The piece, entitled “Farewell, Election Day,” left me particularly perturbed due to a certain argument Mr. Will made about the nature of the electorate. In his commentary, Mr. Will sets out to attack the phenomenon of early voting as a civic ill, slowly draining away the common community experience of voting on Election Day. While Mr. Will’s point may be valid, and I don’t propose to judge it in any case, a particular argument he advanced in its support certainly bears thought. Mr. Will begins by claiming that early voting causes people to judge before having all the facts, a credible supposition, but follows by criticizing the ease of early voting. “Surely,” he writes, “the quality of the electoral turnout declines when the quantity is increased by ‘convenience voting’.”

The quality of the electoral turnout? Perhaps Mr. Will is correct. Perhaps not. Both miss the point. In American democracy, the quality of the turnout, how well informed the voters are in casting their ballots, matters not one whit. Testing the quality of the electorate? Sounds a bit like the literacy requirements that existed for Blacks under Jim Crow. Requirements that, I might add, have since been made illegal. Does the constitution impose any such requirements? Answer: no, in fact, one of the most revolutionary and frequently overlooked innovations of the Constitution was its lack of such requirements.

Consider the British system of the latter eighteenth century for a moment. How open was the franchise? Limited, very limited, to the extent that only “gentlemen” with sufficient property could vote – which leads to a very interesting corollary. No doubt everyone remembers that catchy revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation!” But suppose King George had caved in and given them representation. Some revolutionary war historians theorize that colonial leaders didn’t want representation in the first place. Consider: The king agrees to let the colonies elect members of Parliament, but with the property restriction, our deputies would be outvoted anyway, and we would still end up with those bothersome taxes. The English system, at least before the 1834 Reform Bill, was hardly representative even of the “gentlemen.”

Organized around districts (called boroughs) designed during the late middle ages, some of the “rotten boroughs” were famous for their lack of democratic reality; the borough of Old Sarum, with seven voters, sent two members to parliament, while most of the borough of Dunwich had fallen into the North Sea.

Antiquated electoral mechanisms aside, Mr. Will’s proposition, to insure the quality of the electorate by limiting its quantity, is essentially undemocratic. Perhaps a voter will make a mistake, but such judgments are irrefutably subjective, and in any case, it is the essential right of the voter, of the citizen, to make that choice. As the Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observed, “Democracy is a device to ensure that we shall be governed no better then we deserve.” Writing in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” a satiric addendum to his play Man and Superman, Shaw saw how democracy lets the final responsibility fall on the people and how it reflects both their successes and their failings.

Mr. Will would undoubtedly point out that we are not a democracy, but a republic, that the people do not make the key decisions but rather their chosen representatives, and he would not be wrong. And yet, I think, our elected leaders are reflective of their constituents, of their hopes and fears. If, in Shaw’s phrase, “we deserve” punishment, well then, we have been so punished. But if our politicians do in some small way represent the people who select them, then, by all means, let as many people participate in that selection process as possible.