When the highest percentage of eligible voters since 1968 turned out in the recent presidential election, one could have been forgiven for feeling bullish about the electoral process. Of course, trading volume is not a true indicator of a market's health. In fact, the value of the vote has been dragged down like a branch by a bear who then strips it clean.
Prominent among the forces depressing the value of the vote is, no irony intended, the values vote. Its stay at the top as what put Bush over the top may have been as short-lived as Democratic optimism following the exit polls. But the president's re-election would have been unthinkable without the help of those who based their votes on opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. At the risk of stating the obvious: what's good for a candidate may be less than felicitous for the electoral process. As many of us seem to have forgotten, the act of voting evolved out of the need to procure rights and services. To expend it on fabric-of-society issues is like giving away your possessions in favor of living off the land.
It turns out that another depressor of the value of the vote is implicit in the electoral factor that was finally awarded the prize for most decisive. Complete with its "fold-in," the Iraq War, the winner is--envelope, please--the terror vote. However, this, too, is but an enclosure in a larger package.
As Ira Chernus makes eloquently clear in "Voting Their Fears" on tomdispatch.com, 9/11 put Americans, many of whom had been slipping and sliding in recent years on the shifting sands of moral relativism, on firmer footing. Evil lives, they concluded with newfound moral certainty. Whether it wears the hollow, bearded face of a Saudi scion or the fleshy, mustached face of an Iraqi dictator, pausing to distinguish only weakens us in our vigilance. If one hears the echo of American southerners who grabbed the first black man they came across and lynched him, you can be forgive. Critical to moral certainty is a streamlining of the thought processes, which, as we'll see, greases the skids for the value of the vote to crash.
The third stressor on the voting market is voting fraud, allegations of which have broken out in far-flung pockets like a contagious disease long thought wiped out. While, it seems that Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, as it were, have not always been used to tally votes, the yawns you hear from an issue dismissed as "wonkish" come not only from the public but the media.
A statistical study like "The Effect of Election Voting Machines or Support for Bush in the 2004 Florida Elections" by the Survey Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley sends reporters heading for the hills. That's according to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who may be the only member of the mainstream media who hasn't presented with symptoms of attention deficit disorder in the face of voter fraud. However, simply by virtue of its lack of a paper trail, e-voting--is that "e" for "ether," as in "into the"?--invites investigation.
When Johns Hopkins' Dr. Avi Rubin put his students to work poring over the code--all 48,609 lines worth--of the Diebold voting software he'd gotten hold of, they responded by locating a key in Diebold's obsolete encryption system to unlock all the machines, thus declaring a field day for backdoor programming. Incidentally, any defense of equipment failure is out of the question because Diebold also makes ATM machines. Does a publicly used machine exist that works with fewer flaws?
Then there were reports that, backed by part Saudi-financed entity Five Star Trust, Florida congressman Tom Feeney commissioned a customized, Windows-based, e-voting program to reduce votes in Democratic counties. Whether or not these investigations are followed up, the prospect of tens of thousands of votes lost at a time to collusion and sabotage only contributes to the perception that the vote is of little more value than the contents of one of those fabled Weimar wheelbarrows.
Before the election however we all came to praise the votive vote--democracy's highest sacrament. The Democrats especially, energized by the need to depose a perceived despot, turned the electoral process into an old-time revival meeting, enticing penitent after penitent down the aisle to be saved through voter registration. It was just this dip in apathy that allowed the rise of the electoral seesaw's countervailing trend, which, however, was not a fit subject for polite society. Blue Staters, it seemed, were hoping against hope that the unlikely-to-votes they'd rounded up would oppose the incumbent. Encrypted in code as "the working class failing to vote in its own best interest," the trend was made famous by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?
After the rubble of the election had cleared, one could be forgiven for wondering if Frank had really meant to title his book What the Hell Is Wrong with You People? Novelist Jane Smiley, however, had no problem bringing the question in out of the "code." In her November 4 Slate.com piece, "The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States," she reminded us of the obvious--that "failing to vote in its own best interest" is just good, old voter ignorance.
Smiley, a product of the Red state Missouri that neighbors Frank's Kansas, outlines the reasoning--or lack thereof--exhibited by many of those residing in such locales. It's not uncommon for the Christian right to grow up coerced by the threat of hell fire into rigid acceptance of the arbitrary version of the Bible taught by their particular church. However, the sting is taken out of the prohibition against questioning when they're told they're among the chosen and thus themselves impervious to questioning--in other words, unteachable. Blue-state elitists be damned: the Christian Right are now the blue bloods of a theocracy and if they want to use the vote as a chit with which to wishfully think their way into heaven, it's their prerogative.
In the November 18 issue of eXile, editor Mark Ames, as he's prone to, brandishes the unvarnished truth in our faces. In "The eXile Solution to Middle America," another of his take-no-prisoners broadsides, he takes Blue Staters to task for maxing out on their mea culpa-ing. "The problem with idiocy and lunacy," Ames declares, "are the idiots and lunatics [Red Staters], not their mugging victims [Blue Staters]."
Despite how widely it's used, the word "idiot," in this context, is closer to the truth than one would think. With origins in the ancient Hellenic word idiotis, it means he who was held in contempt because of a lack of interest in politics. Nowadays, not only does simply voting fail to exempt one from that epithet, but it can make one all the more vulnerable.
Voter ignorance may have always been with us, but it's risen to dangerous levels in recent years. In the November 22, 1999 salon.com, Christopher Shea posed the question, "Is voter ignorance killing democracy?" He reported on a poll by the Pew Research Center, released in September of that pre-presidential-election year, which showed that 56 percent of Americans could not name a single Democrat seeking the presidential nomination. Further beggaring credulity, only 63 percent could recall the name "Bush," even though we'd already had a president by that name.
Who knows? Maybe it was this very statistic that convinced Karl Rove to embrace voter ignorance and, in a kind of political jujitsu, turn it to his advantage. It must have struck him as a nice change of pace from his usual strategy of attacking opponents on their strength, as he did with Senator Kerry (oddly aping how Kerry turned his Swift boat into that famous rocket attack).
Then, on September 22 of this year, a groundbreaking treatise on voter ignorance appeared. Perhaps out of deference to the urgent need to register voters--any voter--progressives failed to respond to Ilya Somin's policy analysis for the libertarian Cato Institute, "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy." Lacking even the most basic political information, most voters, Professor Somin maintains, are in no position to communicate their will to the candidates.
The ignorant voter, he continues, lacks the knowledge to assign credit and blame for policy outcomes to the correct office holders (like the informed voter can?). Worse, unless spoonfed a program by a force as well organized as the Far Right, he's unable to understand how issues are connected. Each issue, in other words, exists in a vacuum.
One can hear the collective exclamation: "I knew it, I knew it." Basically, as Christopher Shea, who cites an earlier piece by Professor Somin, states, the ignorant voter bases his vote on vague feelings about how life is treating him--yet another suspicion whose confirmation one dreads. Essentially conceding governance to the elite, the ignorant voter thus dilutes democracy.
Rather than disparage this voter, however, Professor Somin asserts that there is a "rationality" to his ignorance. In other words, the time and effort required for a voter to inform himself are worth far more than the importance of a single vote to the outcome of an election. Not only that, but as I see it, in one of those "epiphanies" akin to glimpsing eternity in opposing barbershop mirrors as a boy, when the pool of voters increases, it sends the vote into an inflationary spiral which requires ever more voters to effect the desired outcome.
Meanwhile, during the nineteenth century, as Professor Somin explains, government was, of course, smaller, with only a few bureaus. A politician had no qualms about presenting sophisticated arguments that today, even if inclined to, he wouldn't dream of spreading before the public. Continuing to accord the ignorant voter backhanded respect, Professor Somin draws the libertarian conclusion that the less issues a smaller government raises, the more likely the voter is to study and discuss them. Or, to phrase it in financial speak again, if government produces fewer goods, more effort can be expended ensuring the quality of the product.
But if it's small government that's required to create an informed electorate, how will the voter become informed enough to vote for measures that would downsize the government? We asked Professor Somin.
"I do hope that at least elites, opinion makers, and others can be better educated in its benefits than they are now, and in particular in the advantages of small government for democracy... . If the climate of opinion among academics, journalists, pundits, etc., can shift, it will have an impact on voting too, or at least on those areas of public policy where political leaders have some discretion (which is quite a few, especially given that voters often don't pay attention)."
Nothing grabs a voter's attention like the prospect of getting a return on his vote from a candidate in whom he invested as if buying stock. In early American times, however, candidates had not yet evolved into human initial stock offerings. In fact, apprehensive about ceding the masses any power over them and their land, they were proprietary about the vote. Legislators in Massachusetts Bay Colony limited the vote to men who were worth forty pounds or who owned a freehold (land that provided income of forty shillings a year). Besides, thanks to election-day bribery, the poor man was considered a wild card whose vote, even when pledged, couldn't be counted on.
In addition to the property tax, a poll tax and a residency requirement were mandated to block immigrants and African-Americans from the right to vote. Also instituted were literacy tests, which not only required the prospective voter to demonstrate his proficiency in reading and writing, but, in some instances, his knowledge of the state or the national constitution.
Wait--doesn't a literacy test weed out the ignorant voter? Maybe in a perfect world, but, in practice, it was an open invitation for those who administered them to exercise their arbitrariness. In 1893, 130,000 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana; after literacy tests were instated, 5,000.
Those in power generally operated under the assumption that, granted the vote, a group would exercise it as a bloc to turn the existing order upside-down. However, when women became franchised, they went their separate ways, many content to let their husbands dictate their vote, others abstaining because politics were deemed un-ladylike. If the vote is currency and gaining the vote is like a windfall, then forgoing voting, or voting at cross-purposes with your peers, is like parking your assets in a savings account instead of investing in equities. As we see, voters who allow traditional mores to hinder them from capitalizing on the vote are nothing new.
With the imperative to merely vote revealed in all its hollow folly, one is almost tempted to ask, "Whither the halcyon days of voter apathy?" Like in 2000, when only 51.3 percent of eligible voters in presidential election voted and 1998, when only 36.4 percent showed up for the congressional elections.
Meanwhile, any incentive for the ill-informed to educate themselves is further diluted by a culture that reinforces the conceit that everyone's opinion is valuable. Like the man-on-the-street interview of another era, today's polling loves you just the way you are. Whether expressing an opinion or voting, it's the gesture, not the essence, that counts.
Until or unless small government comes to pass, there still remain avenues for alleviating the intimidation voters experience before the sheer volume of issues. In this proudly unpretentious land, appealing only to their higher instincts proves pointless; to their baser just perpetuates ignorance. What's called for is an approach in which we diversify, like when we allocate our investments.
The base first: Consider how the handle that registers your vote and opens the curtain in a typical voting booth resembles one on a slot machine. Why not replace a traditional voting machine's tiny levers, which don't give you much more bang for your voting buck than a touch-screen, with the actual arm of a slot machine? Diebold, which already makes money-handling machines for casinos, could have them up and running in no time.
Sure, the suggestion is fanciful. But it was intended to demonstrate the need to bring the vote back from both the ether of e-voting and the valley of values to return it to its status as a form of currency. Meanwhile, though e-voting seems to be the wave of the future, receipts are apparently more than we can hope for. Come to think of it, about the only flaw in those ATM machines, like Diebold makes, is that sometimes the printer is down. Why then can't electronic voting machines at least provide the voter with the number--like a hit count on a Web site--of voters who have preceded him on the machine that day?
As for higher instincts, maybe it's time we who call ourselves progressives cease and desist in our dissection of the Far Right voter, lest we further reinforce his notions about the liberal elite. Heed Professor Somin's theory about the rationality of the uninformed voter, stop putting him under a microscope, and accord him the respect a winner deserves. Meanwhile, the most obvious path to the higher instincts is higher, as well as lower, learning.
It's true that Americans have a native talent for forgetting what they learned in school. But when, for instance, the study of citizenship and government is still called "civics," what can you expect? Also, we know we're in trouble when we encounter the first of the "Twenty-Five Great Ideas for Teaching Current Events!" listed on Education World's imposing Web site. Dissolve a milk of magnesia tablet in water, it suggests, and soak news clippings in the solution to neutralize acid and keep them from yellowing. Bear in mind that this is on a Web site archived like that of a newspaper.
It needs to be made manifest to students how issues hit home. For instance, show them that Americans are out of work because financial policies make it easy for businesses to outsource jobs despite the cost to students' unemployed relatives and family friends. To further rouse students, issues need to be "framed" as if they were actual frames in a movie, such as the crime-of-the-century detective saga, "Where's Osama?"
A teacher might ask if the students think the best investigators have been assigned to this case and whether they're the beneficiaries of full cooperation by other agencies around the world. However, if wind of a teacher taking a tack like that got back to school administrators, the discussion would be dead in the water. Hamstrung by both the politically correct and the politically sensitive, the creative teacher is limited in how stimulating he can make a discussion.
Meanwhile, Professor Somin still believes voting is cost-effective. However, "It's acquiring political knowledge that is not cost-effective, because it requires much more time and effort than just voting... even relatively ill-informed voting still has some benefits because the voters can still use it to punish major and highly visible mistakes by incumbents. That's why democracies, even with ill-informed voters, don't have famines and mass murders of the kind that dictatorships experience. But obviously the effectiveness of the vote as a tool for holding leaders accountable is not as great as it would be with more information."
Still, one can't help but wonder: The right hook of peremptory war and the jabs of the Patriot Act has democracy reeling. Will the depreciating value of the vote deliver the knockout blow?