Qualifying The Vote
Hedging against flippancy at the ballot box.
I wrote an article analyzing and critiquing the issue of the unqualified vote in the American democratic system. The premise of the critique is as follows: in the U.S., everyone’s vote at the ballot box is equal in qualification regardless of the effort put into the consideration of the vote. For example, someone who has a Ph.D. in political science and stays up-to-date on relevant political, economic, social, etc. issues carefully considering candidates’ positions on such issues can have his vote nullified by someone who meandered into a voting booth giving zero consideration for whom to vote.
To be sure, there are some qualifications to vote. For example, no felony record (although this qualification is slowly changing), citizenship, and being 18 years old. These qualifications are what I call soft-qualifications. I discuss these further in the previous article and so will not go into them here.
In what follows, I go over some of the arguments for an against qualifying the vote in a governing system like the U.S.
The argument from equality and fairness is a common retort of this critique. For example, in U.S. democracy, everyone’s vote has to be equal in order to hedge against discrimination. For example, our Ph.D. and whimsical voter have to have the quality of their vote equal because if the Ph.D. is given special treatment for his credential and attentiveness, then it could appear that we’re marginalizing people who do not have such credentials. For U.S. democracy this is typically unacceptable because it resembles aristocratic values. Perhaps, those who don’t have a Ph.D. weren’t given the opportunity to earn such a credential for reasons outside of their control. The bottom line is that U.S. culture is sensitive toward discrimination particularly when it smells of elitism or feels aristocratic.
This argument is usually successful at quelling any kind of further pressure to pursue a counter position. There’s good reason why this position is so successful in the U.S. — the majority of voters in the U.S. in fact don’t hold a Ph.D. in anything, and they’re not especially concerned with comprehensively contemplating the issues and identifying candidates that best represent the results of their contemplation.
To the first point, there’s some truth behind the saying, “strength in numbers.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018,
Since 2000, the number of people age 25 and over whose highest degree was a master’s has doubled to 21 million. The number of doctoral degree holders has more than doubled to 4.5 million. Now, about 13.1 percent of U.S. adults have an advanced degree, up from 8.6 percent in 2000.
Adding 21 million people with masters degree and 4.5 million with Ph.Ds, that’s 25.5 million people with advanced degrees. Subtract 25.5 million from 350 million, which is roughly the population in the U.S., we get 324.5 million people without advanced degrees. One of the implications is that if we were to qualify the vote based on educational credentials, we’d alienate almost the entire U.S. population. Since people are steadfast in their commitment to an inalienable right to vote and anti-elitism, qualifying the vote based on education ain’t goin’ happen.
Furthermore, just because someone is educated does not necessitate them being interested in the political system or the issues on which are discussed. For example, a theoretical physicist who spends most of his time thinking about string theory might not have an inclination to put much consideration into wealth disparity, tax brackets, and/or limiting the amount of plea bargains in the criminal justice system.
To the second point, this is a more generalized and arguable proposition. I can ask any American off of the street what they think about any issue ranging from abortion or immigration to the implications of Greek austerity on the U.S. economy and receive an opinion. Americans are generally good at talking about issues whether they have a robust understanding and provide an analysis of the issue arguing both sides or regurgitating a 10 second sound bite they heard on the morning news. More often than not, however, the latter is more correct most of the time.
To be fair, it’s not entirely the fault of the mass of Americans that they don’t comprehensively understand issues but feel the need to talk as if they do. People have a lot of responsibilities in their daily lives like moving children from place-to-place, paying bills, worrying about debt, relational problems, working full-time, or not losing their shit in traffic, etc. Nevertheless, it seems that American’s don’t want to seem out-of-touch with the issues on which they vote. There’s a deep psychological pull to be able to speak intelligently about the issues on which they vote and be able to do all of the other things in their lives. However, speaking to Americans about issues is a quick way to find out how superficially they understand them. A possible consequence of endowing people with an entitlement, like the right to vote, creates an internal struggle to talk intelligently about issues but not having the educational fortitude to do so beyond a repeating of canned one-liners from the evening news or one of the 24-hour networks.
Speaking of 24-Hour news networks, there’s also the way American’s are allowed to consume information about the issues and the candidates who best represent their views on those issues. There’r the big corporate media outlets like: CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CNBC, FOXBN, ABC, New York Time, Washing Post, etc. There are also the local newspapers that distribute information. And then there’s Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and all of those other less than reputable places. Each outlet provides similar information but in vastly different ways. MSNBC and FOX are direct competitors with opposite ideological commitments and so the presentation of similar information is very different. It requires an initial leap of faith to accept that what is being presented is true, and then another leap to accept that the presentation is good. There are a lot of cognitive gymnastics that go into consuming information from the various outlets and disseminating whats what is exhausting. So, it’s not unreasonable that most Americans have opinions on issues, but those opinions are often scattered, incomplete, not comprehensive, and/or diluted.
There’s also the issue of bias. Some people, once they’ve made up their minds about a certain issue, will not change their minds. It’s not a matter of inflexibility or willingness to change, it has to do settling an issue, feeling satisfied, and moving forward. The people who have thought abortion was wrong when they were 20 and still think it’s wrong at 75 aren’t going to change because they’re committed to their position. In some ways, this is an admirable way to live a life because it requires a high level of comfortability with one’s beliefs. However, not being flexible and examining new evidence as it becomes available on any issue can be seen as stubborn.
I could go on examining the reasons and conditions under which Americans might not contemplate and fully understand political issues. The point is Americans on a mass level will push back against the notion of a qualified vote because fairness and equality in the political system requires that no one be discriminated against simply because they don’t have an advanced education credential or because they have a tenuous grasp on political issues. The collective psychology among the mass of people is that in order to have a fair and equal political system, everyone’s vote must be an unqualified 1:1.
This argument carries a lot of merit and weight in the current cultural and societal climate as I’ve mentioned in my other article. Instead of rehashing what I’ve already said, I’m going to turn to an analysis of a different issue; namely — that the paradigmatic case of the vote being unqualified and 1:1 is holding U.S. democracy back.
It might seem like I have a problem with democracy. In one sense, I do. Specifically, U.S. democracy because of the mass acceptance that any lawful citizen 18 or over with no felony convictions can walk into a voting booth and flippantly vote for whomever potentially nullifying someone else’s carefully contemplated vote. I understand, on some level, why this is accepted.
One level analysis suggests that this acceptance is a numbers game as I’ve already laid out above. In short, because there are so many more people that are comfortable with superficial understandings of issues and the system as a whole than there are people who pay close attention and carefully contemplating and strategizing their views, U.S. democracy is fundamentally mediocre in practice.
Some will argue that there is nothing wrong with the status quo because of what I’ve said above, and, in practice, this is what democracy is; namely — a collection of various views and perspectives expressed through votes and candidates earning the majority of votes are the manifestations of those views and perspectives. Democracy will never live up to any ideal because it’s fundamentally messy and convoluted.
I agree with this position insofar as democracy is messy and convoluted. However, I disagree with the notion that U.S. democracy’s reliance on an uninformed and impulsive population is the best we can do. Moreover, it’s not an ideal state of affairs to think that a democracy wherein those who participate in the voting system meet certain qualifications in order to express themselves via their vote. Also, it’s not idealistic to think that who qualifies as a candidate should be determined by more than citizenship, age, and who can fork up the money to enter the race.
Americans en masse require so little of themselves and their candidates. Perhaps this is a consequence of entitling a population on such a large scale with the right to vote (or have anything). I don’t know? However, it’s conceivable that if we had to earn the ability to vote by qualifying ourselves, and requiring that our candidates be more qualified, our democratic system could hedge against flippancy and disingenuousness.
There’s also the issue of someone contemplating so much about the political system and trying to understand all of the issues and candidates that instead of having a well-rounded and qualified vote, one becomes paralyzed and cynical about the system withdrawing from it entirely. U.S. democracy demands so much from its voters when we take voting seriously. If we take voting as serious as we pretend to do, then it’s a miracle that any votes are cast at all. For example, as a voter, I am supposed to determine my position on economics and foreign policy, among other issues, and find a candidate that closely represents my beliefs on all of these issues and vote for that person. It’s a full-time job plus overtime to do all of that. Indeed, we have 24-hour media outlets dedicated to doing just that and even they can’t keep up. It’s a heavy burden to internalize the ideology of the importance of the vote but fear that we are not able to live up to expectations that when we vote, we’re doing so with a good conscience meaning that whomever we chose to represent our beliefs, we actually understand our beliefs and further believe that we will be represented accordingly.
On the other hand, internalizing the ideology of the importance of the vote and casting it without knowing exactly what we’re voting for or if the person for whom we vote is the best candidate to represent our interests is paralyzing if considered seriously. How can we, in good conscience, vote knowing that we don’t understand the issues sufficiently to participate but will anyway because of the psychological force of the entitlement imperative to vote as a result of our ideological commitments? Too much contemplation an analysis can be paralyzing just as not enough contemplation and analysis can be paralyzing.
A qualified vote might help with this in that if we meet some kind of criteria to vote, then at least we’d know that when we vote, we were qualified to do so. Moreover, we would know that other people who voted were qualified. Also, if we demanded more of candidates’ qualifications, then when we voted, we at least had confidence that our representation had met some kind of criteria.
Another argument against this is that the voting population votes for representatives specifically because the general population doesn’t have time to consider all of the issues. The representatives are broken into ideological parties that are supposed to represent the various ways that the country can be governed politically, economically, culturally, etc. So, in a sense, voting for a person who represents a party or ideology is supposed to alleviate the demand on the general population to educate themselves on all of the issues and nuances.
Another meritorious argument defending the general population against needing to be to concerned with detail, nuance, and their society. A few things I’ll point out about this argument is that what happens if I am: 1) not committed to anyone ideology; 2) on the fence about any one of the ideologies from which to choose; or 3) have one foot in one camp and another foot in another camp with respect to the varying issues? It’s not likely that I’ll find someone who perfectly represents my logic which means I can: 1) not vote; 2) run for office myself; 3) wait for someone to come along who I can justifiably vote for, or 3) align myself with the closet ideology from which to choose and compromising some of my views so I have someone to vote for.
Voting for ideologies seems like a good way to bypass having the general population constantly contemplating policy issues, but it still doesn't really address the issue of having to be qualified to vote for an ideology. The same situation where a carefully contemplated vote can be nullified by an ignorant vote exists. It’s possible that voting for ideologies decreases even further the attention people pay to issues. For example, if I vote Republican all of the time regardless of the issues simply because I vote ideologically, then I could be voting for something or someone that goes against my belief or logic system on a specific issue.
There’r a lot of other considerations that I haven’t touched on that would have to be worked out if citizens of the U.S. decided to hold themselves more accountable in their role of voting citizens, which is a topic in itself; that is, that people would have to decide to qualify their own vote. Another thing Americans seem to have trouble doing is imposing restrictions onto themselves, especially when very little restrictions already exist. There’s also the problem of overcoming the psychological force of entitlement insofar as people would want to know why they should restrict an a non-restrictive entitlement. What exactly would be the qualifications for voting? They couldn’t be so prohibitive that they restricted a large amount of the population from voting; again that stinks of aristocratic values and the U.S. population at large won’t tolerate it.
Qualifying the vote may seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but it, like so many other things, it probably depends on perspective. My perspective right now is that a system’s weaknesses are always more palpable than its strengths. The unqualified vote is a weakness of U.S. democracy. It’s not clear right now exactly how qualifying the vote would impact the system, but not qualifying it seems to contribute to lackluster governance.