Column: More Michigan voters won’t promote democracy
The recently launched “Promote the Vote” initiative on the ballot this November is based on the optimistic assumption that the more people we can get to vote, the better our government will serve the people. Unfortunately, adding more voters to the electoral process is unlikely to achieve that goal.
Yes, any Michiganian who is legally eligible to vote should be able to do so, reliably and conveniently, and the initiative would do some good in this regard. It would protect secret ballots, ensure military service members get their ballots in time, audit elections and allow absentee voting for any reason. It’s being run by good people who are trying to do the right thing, including the American Civil Liberties Union-Michigan.
But these organizers claim, “By making voting more accessible and secure, our democracy will better serve all Americans and our laws will better reflect the will of the people.” In practice, the outcome will likely be the opposite.
The uncomfortable truth of representative government is that voters — and I include myself in this description — don’t know enough to make truly informed decisions. If you don’t think that describes you, do you know what committees your state and federal legislators sit on, and how they voted there? What legislation did they introduce this past term? What bills did they cosponsor?
And while saying voters are uninformed certainly sounds harsh or elitist, political scientists use the term “rational ignorance” to describe a voter’s relationship to an election. When your vote is only one of thousands or millions in play, it’s rational for you not to invest too much time researching candidates. That’s because the benefit to you of making the correct choice with your vote is far lower than what you’d accomplish doing basically anything else with the time you’d spend on that research. You could study up for that one-in-a-million chance that your vote decides the election, or you could accomplish something worthwhile like mowing the lawn or reading to your child.
One especially toxic component of the ballot initiative is the restoration of straight-ticket voting to Michigan’s elections. With the ridiculous partisan gridlock facing our state and nation, it’s hard to see how empowering political parties even further would be of any benefit to anybody but politicians.
Voters already make choices overwhelmingly on name recognition or party identification. That’s why we see potentially two congressional seats in metro Detroit changing hands between family members in 2018 after the retirement of Sander Levin and the resignation of John Conyers Jr. It’s a big component of why we have President Donald Trump, and why someone named “Bush” or “Clinton” has been on the ballot in six of the last eight presidential elections.
Those are the kinds of outcomes we get when people who have made just the basic effort to register to vote ahead of time and show up on Election Day are making our choices. Of course, every person’s vote should count the same. Any attempt to keep someone from voting is an insult to the memory of heroes who fought and even died to secure that right. But in real-world practice, simply adding more unengaged voters to the mix through automatic voter registration and in-person registration on Election Day will only make it harder for “good” candidates to beat incumbency or famous names. If you decrease the importance of substantive campaigning to engaged voters, you make pandering, party politics and name-recognition candidacies more effective.
It’s understandable to hope that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would do a better job if more of the people participated in elections. But if we want evidence that the good intentions of increasing voter turnout don’t necessarily create better government, we can look around the world at nations that regularly beat the United States in voter participation. While there are some stereotypical “good government” countries like Sweden or Norway on that list, there are also governmental basket cases like Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Meanwhile, perennial “best country to live in” Switzerland’s voter turnout is 17 percent lower than ours.
This doesn’t mean we should try for fewer voters. Rather, if we are this dysfunctional at choosing the people who run our governments, we should probably give those governments less power over our lives.
John C. Mozena is a marketing and communications consultant.