Today’s Washington Post has 38 suggestions from a variety of people on “How to Fix American Democracy”“How to Fix American Democracy”. My favorite is by two Louisiana State professors. It’s the first one on the list: “Require Everyone to Vote”.
A more accurate title for their suggestion would have been “Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Vote”. Their suggestion:
A long-standing defect in U.S. suffrage law is the treatment of the electoral franchise as a privilege that is denied too easily and often because of an ugly prejudice or a convenient pretext. Let’s re-imagine the democratic right of voting as a citizen’s obligation. In our doppelganger ally down under, Australia, voting is compulsory. They have far higher turnouts, and their elections boast greater legitimacy.
We can and should make it much easier to carry out this civic duty: Keep polls open for an entire week, not a single day, and make sure that polling places are easily available — distributed across states according to population density. In addition, let’s expand mail-in voting (which is how citizens who serve in the military routinely vote). Public transportation to the polls should be free. A national registry of voters can be created if hospitals automatically submit birth certificates; this way, voters could be identified by their Social Security number, and arbitrary state requirements could not be used to unfairly penalize them. Anyone who fails to cast a ballot would be subject to a fine, the funds from which could be used to support the costs incurred by this compulsory program.
Instead of permitting voter suppression, which stands out as a blemish on our less-than-fully-democratic system, we should be defining the voter as a national citizen. In reversing the emphasis from suspicion of fraud to across-the-board inclusion, we would come closer to being a “representative democracy” — what we’ve always claimed we are. And at least we’ll be able to say with greater authority that candidates look foolish (or bigoted) when they refuse to consider the interests of the entire body of citizens.
Like most improvements, this has little chance of being adopted until the Democrats control all three branches of the government. But individual states could implement it immediately.
Since young people vote less than old people, and poor people vote less than rich people, making everyone vote would increase the percentage of voters who are young or poor. I think that would be a very good thing to do, but maybe people who don’t bother to vote now because they aren’t interested in politics or don’t follow the news would be bad at voting.
Another suggestion (“Persuade Voters to Keep Clicking”) includes thoughts about ill-informed voters:
Inept, corrupt or extremist political leaders are harming our democracy. So, too, are the voters who don’t check if what they are reading, hearing or viewing is true. Our democracy’s problems are not just caused by bad leaders but also by indolent voters.
Citizens who don’t care about politics have always existed. As have those who vote without knowing much about who or what they are voting for — or against. But things have changed. Today, the failure of these voters to “click again” and find out more about their choices threatens all of us. The Internet makes apathetic voters especially vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues, particular interests or even foreign powers.
The Founding Fathers worried about the impact of the uneducated or ill-informed on American democracy. James Madison argued, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson hoped that education would be the antidote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
It is a paradox of our time: Information has never been easier to find and yet we have all become more vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The Internet is both a marvelous source of insights and a toxic channel through which weaponized lies freely circulate.
That’s why the author of this last suggestion and several other contributors say we need to make sure voters are better-informed. One of them, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, says we should teach critical thinking skills to every student every year. I’m in favor of making Americans smarter and better thinkers, but it would be quicker and probably more effective to make 24-hour cable “news” channels like Fox News and CNN illegal.
Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post:
Voters surely can change the political culture they deplore. They can turn out to vote, demand respectful and reasonable lawmaking, eschew bullies and bigots, and adhere to the ethical standards they now bemoan are declining. Trump voters or Roy Moore voters who think that we are more divided and that ethical standards are lower should look in the mirror.
… in a democracy, ultimately the people do control the system. By improved citizenship — which includes tuning out the right-wing propaganda machine that works in tandem with Trump (as it did in dredging up the phony uranium scandal to divert attention from purported charges to be filed as early as Monday); rejecting pols who are morally and intellectually unfit for office; working across the aisle with people of good will; and defending democratic norms — Americans can reclaim their democracy.
Most people thought Hillary Clinton was going to win last year. Most people thought the Orange Menace was unqualified to be President. Since they wanted to hold the next president to a high standard, media people gave inordinate attention to Clinton’s email server management, the Goldman Sachs speeches and the Clinton Foundation. FBI Director James Comey probably assumed Clinton would win so maybe he figured it would be okay to give the Republican a boost. I’m convinced lots of people voted for her main opponent or didn’t vote at all because they were sure he would never be president.
Imagine, however, that everyone registered to vote in the United States received a very special message before the election:
Hello, [your name here], this is the Voice of God. I have decided that your individual vote will determine who will be the next president. Forget the polls. Forget the other voters. Forget whether you live in a swing state. Forget the Electoral College. You and you alone will choose the next president. You are the only person receiving this message. You must think very carefully and then go vote. You must choose one of the candidates and whoever you choose will win the election. I will make it happen. It is a sure thing. Keep in mind that your decision will affect people throughout the world, so choose wisely. I am counting on you, [your name here], to choose the best person for the job. Perhaps I should add that you do not want to disappoint Us. Thank you and have a nice day.
And everyone who got the message believed they heard the Voice of God, thought about their decision (and a few other things) very seriously and then cast their vote.
Who would have won the election? Would Clinton have received the additional 78,000 votes out of the 14 million cast in three states she needed to win the Electoral College?
I believe she would have, although that may be wishful thinking. The point I’m trying to make is that we should all take voting very seriously. It makes a big difference who is elected, especially since the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right.
One problem, of course, is that the Republicans have successfully manipulated our electoral system in ways that stop or discourage people from voting (voter suppression) or dilute the impact of their votes (gerrymandering). But the other big problem is that too many people simply don’t bother to vote. Unfortunately, the mystery isn’t why they don’t bother. The mystery is why anyone does.
That’s because, given the size of our electorate and the arcane rules we follow, nobody should think their individual vote will matter. In anything but the smallest local elections, the chances of one person’s vote making a difference are infinitesimal. Understanding that, most voters see voting as consequence-free. That partly explains why so few of us bother. It also partly explains who won in November. Why not vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning if it won’t make any difference who you vote for?
Philosophers and social scientists call this problem the “paradox of voting” (or the “Downs paradox” in honor of an economist who studied it):
The paradox of voting … is that for a rational, self-interested voter, the costs of voting will normally exceed the expected benefits. Because the chance of exercising the pivotal vote (i.e., in an otherwise tied election) is minuscule, … the expected benefits of voting are less than the costs.
The issue was noted by Nicolas de Condorcet in 1793 when he stated, “In single-stage elections, where there are a great many voters, each voter’s influence is very small. It is therefore possible that the citizens will not be sufficiently interested [to vote]” and “… we know that this interest [which voters have in an election] must decrease with each individual’s [i.e. voter’s] influence on the election and as the number of voters increases.” In 1821, Hegel made a similar observation: “As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors.” [Wikipedia]
There are ways to get people to vote even though their individual votes won’t matter. You can make voting mandatory (like in Australia). You can try to make voting fun (how about a free doughnut or one of those “I VOTED” stickers?). Or you could pay people to vote.
That last option might be considered bribery, but it has been considered as government policy. The city of Los Angeles and the state of Arizona have both looked at turning elections into lotteries. One lucky voter would win a million dollars! I don’t know if anyone has thought about simply giving cash to each voter, but that would work too.
One problem with these approaches, however, is that it would encourage voting by “low information” voters, people who don’t know much about the issues or the candidates. They would only bother to vote because they were afraid of being punished or interested in a possible reward. That could be a problem, but it would be a problem worth having, since getting everyone to vote would have the biggest effect on young people and poor people. Those are the two groups least likely to vote today. Getting more of them to vote would have a big effect and a positive one.
Of course, we could simply appeal to everyone’s sense of civic duty. As citizens of a representative democracy, we are supposed to learn about the candidates and issues and then make a responsible choice. That’s how I think of voting. It’s a ritual I perform because I live in a democracy. In other words, I know my vote won’t have an effect but I do it anyway, because it feels like it’s the right thing to do. It makes me feel good to cast a ballot.
It’s clear that I don’t know how to solve this problem. I don’t know how to make our democracy more representative by getting more people to vote. I suppose it’s (very remotely) possible that God will trick everyone into voting next time by sending each of us a personal message like the one above. What I do know is that our upcoming elections are extremely important, given the lopsided amount of power the Republicans now have. Maybe the best thing to do, therefore, is to encourage everyone you know, especially the sane ones, to register and vote every chance they get. Sure, as individuals, it will be a waste of time. But as a group it will be one of the best things we can do. Let’s all pay attention and vote, and encourage others to do the same, as if we’re all on a mission from God. Need I add that it’s a mission to elect more Democrats?
For further encouragement, here’s yesterday’s column by Colbert King in The Washington Post. His conclusion:
The midterm 2018 elections can be Judgment Day for Trump. And dress rehearsal for 2020. Fume and fuss, talk back to the television, kick the can, call Trump names, vent to your heart’s content. All that changes nothing. Also probably ruins your health. What can make a difference? The ballot. Vote, vote, vote.
In 1972, the German government founded the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a foundation and think tank in Washington. It was a gift to the American people in recognition of how the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War 2.
The GMF has now created Hamilton 68, a site that allows “tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter”. (The name refers to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he discussed foreign meddling in our elections.) If you visit the new Disinformation Dashboard, you can see what stories and topics Russia is pushing today. From today’s “Top Themes”:
The networks we track are engaged in disinformation. They amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinformation, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects – bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin’s benefit. This past week we have seen Kremlin-oriented Twitter promoting content regarding non-lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Reality: the U.S. Navy is helping construct a naval operations center at Ochakiv. The promoted stories at Stalker Zone and Strategic Culture turn that into: “The Entire Black Sea Coast of Ukraine Will Become a U.S. Military Base” and “U.S. Military to be Permanently Stationed on [Ukraine] Soil” respectively. Such stories are produced continuously. Their effectiveness is based on cumulative impact.
Side note: A coherent response to events on the weekend in Charlottesville has not yet emerged (as of August 16), though we continue to watch for one.
They’re currently monitoring 600 Twitter users, “properly understood as a network of accounts linked to and participating in Russian influence campaigns”, officially or unofficially, knowingly or unknowingly. These include:
Today’s top Russian tweet, according to the Disinformation Dashboard, happens to be from the government-run RT network (formerly Russia Today):
The top Russia hashtags for the past 48 hours have been “antifa” (anti-fascist), “maga” (Make America Great…), “boston”, “syria”, “isis” and “altleft”.
By the way, according to something called TwitterAudit.com, roughly 40% of DT’s 36 million followers are automated (i.e. fake).
Shining light on Russia’s propaganda efforts is a good thing, but I’d feel better if the president* and his minions were doing something to protect our upcoming elections. They’re not, because Russia is on their side.
Note: Whoever designed this graphic for GMF showing Putin releasing all those Twitter birds might as well have left the birds blue. Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. It’s a right-wing kleptocracy, which is why the president* and other right-wing fanatics are so pro-Russia now. Putin leads the kind of government they aspire to.
This piece by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine very nicely explains some of the Orange Menace’s appeal. He is the apotheosis of the Low Information Voter, the citizens who are conscientious enough to register and cast a ballot, but who have trouble deciding who to vote for, not so much because they’re “centrists” with “moderate” views, but because they don’t have a fucking clue:
It is widely known that [DT] — whose political profile over the decades has vacillated from liberal to conservative to moderate to populist, and supported and opposed abortion rights, higher taxes on the rich, and universal health care — does not care very much about political ideas. This explanation is true, but incomplete. The president also does not know very much about political ideas. And it is not merely the details of policy that he lacks. Trump has no context for processing ideas. He does not understand which kinds of ideas imply support for which kinds of policies, nor why political figures tend to believe what they do, nor why they agree or disagree with one another. He is capable of forming strongly held beliefs about people in politics, but he does so in entirely personal terms. Trump’s flamboyant, weird ignorance reveals a distinct pattern. He is not so much non-ideological as sub-ideological.
It is common to attribute Trump’s protean identity as simple self-interest: He has aligned himself with whichever party seemed to benefit him at any given moment. And surely calculation plays a role. But it cannot explain all his puzzling statements about politics. Sometimes he expresses openness about unpopular policies his administration and party would never go for (like a higher tax on gasoline). Trump constantly relates questions about politics back to himself and his alleged deal-making genius not only because he’s a narcissist, but because the contest of political debate remains largely mysterious to him.
Many Americans share Trump’s lack of ideological sophistication. High-information voters tend to clump at the ends of the political spectrum. They may not have sophisticated beliefs, but their identification with one of the party coalitions is a tool they use to make sense of individual issues. Low-information voters tend to have a weak understanding of what the political parties stand for and how those positions relate to each other. These voters can be roughly categorized as “centrist” because they don’t line up neatly with one party platform or the other. But, rather than a consistently moderate outlook, they share a mishmash of extreme and frequently uninformed beliefs. Because they don’t understand the philosophical basis for disagreements, they assume the two parties ought to naturally cooperate, and tend to see partisan bickering as a failure and an indication of personal fault by politicians.
Trump thinks about politics like a low-information voter, which enabled him to speak their language naturally. His stated belief during the campaign that he could expertly craft a series of popular deals — “it’s going to be so easy” — appealed to low-information voters because it earnestly described the political world as they see it. Trump’s experience as a developer and professional celebrity have put a narcissistic gloss on Trump’s low-information worldview. He sees politics as a variation of real estate or reality television — a field where the players are sorted not so much as combatants on opposing teams (though they may compete at times) but on a hierarchy of success, with the big stars at the top sharing interests in common. His vague boasts that his presidency would create terrific things that everybody loves and is winning again is a version of how he truly sees the world….
Politics is a strange institution that forces committed professionals who have coherent philosophical beliefs to persuade voters who mostly do not. Barack Obama accomplished this in highbrow fashion. His characteristic political style was to incorporate the values of both left and right and try to … synthesize the perspectives together. (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”) Trump accomplishes it in lowbrow style, by literally not understanding the source of the disagreement.
On that note, perhaps a bit of humor will help. Here’s Tom Tomorrow of This Modern World from back in 2004. That was the election that pitted the dim-witted, semi-competent incumbent, President George W. Bush, who had already screwed up one way and another for four years, against John Kerry, the respected but boring Senator and future Secretary of State who had married an heiress and wasn’t a “regular guy”:
The chart below is the result of a poll of 1,000 Americans who mirror the population of the country as a whole. The question they were asked was:
Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
Most blacks and Clinton voters are in very close agreement: neither group has gotten what they deserve.
By the same percentage, whites think that average (i.e. mostly white) Americans haven’t gotten what they deserve. Blacks, however, have done well.
Trump voters also agree that average Americans haven’t gotten what they deserve. They’re very sure, however, that blacks have been living on easy street.
The political scientist who reported the results concludes:
It appears, then, that Trump voters weren’t simply motivated by their widespread belief that average Americans are being left behind. Rather, their strong suspicion that African Americans are getting too much—a belief held by the overwhelming majority of Trump voters—was a much stronger predictor of their vote choices in last month’s election.
Racially resentful beliefs that African Americans are getting more than they deserve were so strongly linked to support for Trump, in fact, that their impact on both the 2016 Republican Primary and the general election were larger than they had ever been before.
Another conclusion we should draw is that America’s race problem and America’s politics won’t improve much until there are fewer of us white people around.