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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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)."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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?