Primary season is almost here, which means long, mindless speeches about the same thing, lots of attack ads and, still worse, self-important lectures about the importance of voting.
Although they’re usually well-intentioned, most of the folks who dole out purported words of wisdom like “it only takes five minutes,” or “you’ll feel good about yourself if you do it,” are doing our democracy a disservice. That’s because they mistake civic engagement, which is important, with voting, which isn’t.
To explain this, let’s say America was just a group of six people going out to dinner in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Actually, most people who are trillions of dollars in debt don’t get to eat out, but suspend your disbelief for a moment.
Two of these people have gone on Yelp and done research on local restaurants. The rest have no idea what they’re talking about and are clueless about local cuisine. The best thing for the group, of course, would be for the other four to stop being so lazy and do their own research—that would lend itself to a more informed group decision. But the second best choise would be to let the two people who’ve done their homework make the decision. No one would say all six should decide if four are essentially just shooting in the dark.
Yet that’s exactly what groups like Rock the Vote and other youth voting mobilization movements have been doing. The “it’s cool to vote” movement in America upends the primary purpose of voting by treating it largely like recycling: something that should be done because it’s good for society and easy to do. Anyone remember, for instance, when Sarah Silverman was featured in public service Youtube adverts telling prospective voters that they can use a laptop to “register while you’re pooping?”
And take a look at Rock the Vote’s website—there’s tons of information on when and how to vote in the most time efficient, easy way possible on the front page, but it’s a lot harder to find objective information on the issues.
At their worst, people who claim to be non-partisan voting mobilizers have an ulterior or distinctly partisan motive. In 2004, for instance, Rock the Vote sent out 600,000 fake military draft notices via email to try to get teenagers to vote. Surely, if someone is voting on the basis of fear that they’ll be drafted (which, though perhaps a possibility somewhere down the road, was not an issue on the table in 2004), they haven’t been properly prepared to vote.
Duke, sadly, has not been exempt from this sort of nonsense. I’ve gotten floods of listserv emails telling me how easy it is to vote—one last year told me “it will only take 20 minutes, we can get you a ride, it will be fun, you will get a sticker.” If a sticker is what makes or breaks voting for you, I’m not sure you’re really performing a public service by showing up to the polls.
People who disagree with me often argue that there’s some sort of causal relationship between being pressured into voting and becoming well-informed. But studies have shown that those people are wrong.
A 2008 study at the University of Montreal sought support for the hypothesis that financially compelling citizens to vote through monetary incentives (a more extreme form of “I’ll give you a sticker” or “you’ll feel like a good person”) would cause them to be better-informed about elections. In the end, the authors concluded that though monetary incentives might get people to turn up at the polls, it did not encourage them to learn about the election in which they were voting.
Lest you accuse me of being a dirty elitist, let me be clear: High school graduates are no less equipped to be intimately familiar with political issues than Ph.D’s. Nor am I arguing against enfranchisement—anyone who is over 18 and feels compelled to vote of their own volition should do so. My beef is only with people who think any and all voting is automatically a positive.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that “a vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” In the same vein, by treating voting like a five-minute throwaway citizenship obligation, we dishonor the memories of generations of pioneers who needed to fight for decades to gain the right to show up on Election Day.
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So let’s axe the cheesy “Vote or Die” campaigns, condescending emails and guilt-trips; we gain nothing from blindly encouraging people to vote—besides an uninformed electorate. Groups that are currently occupied with these sorts of things should replace them with a genuine, non-partisan effort to promote voter education on the issues.
And if you still think the “important” part of civic engagement is voting (that is, showing up to a polling booth and pulling a lever), please consider staying at home on Election Day.
There are plenty of people out there who’ll be happy to pick a restaurant for you.
Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam. His column runs every other Monday.