Get out the books, not the vote
I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.
Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.
For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.
Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.
I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.
The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.