Who Decides?

Picture by Hilary Ginsberg

Conservative columnist Kevin Williamson recently published a piece in National Review entitled, “Why Not Fewer Voters?” Dressed up in intellectual-sounding verbiage, Williamson’s argument summarized the Republican case for voter suppression. In opposition to the Democratic and democratic position that the more people who vote, the better, Williamson countered, “Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite? That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?”

Williamson clothed his piece in seemingly sophisticated socio-political rationales, but his logic is no different from that of Arizona state Representative John Kavangh who said, “Everybody shouldn’t be voting.” Really? Tell that to the thousands of women who agitated for the vote in the early decades of the 20th century and to the thousands of Blacks who marched for the vote in the South during the civil rights movement. Maybe, if he had known he should not be voting, John Lewis might not have had his skull fractured. Perhaps, the many martyrs to the cause of one person, one vote might still be alive had they realized the error of their ways.

But, they marched and died because the flaw in the case made by Republican restrictionists is simple: Who decides? Who gets to say who is worthier of the franchise than his or her fellow citizen? In the early days of the Republic, white men who owned property decided that only white men who owned property could vote. Property qualifications for the vote quickly disappeared, but then white men decided that only white men could vote. And, so it went, until all restrictions based on gender and race disappeared. Now, Republican white men, fearful of being overwhelmed at the ballot box, would have the nation turn the clock back to an earlier time when only the “right” people voted.

Williamson’s article is based on an error. “It is a fact that many of the things that would be useful in discouraging and preventing voting fraud,” he writes, “would also tend to make voting somewhat more difficult for at least some part of the population. Republicans generally think that tradeoff is worth it, and Democrats generally don’t. Is there motivated reasoning at work there? Of course. But the mere presence of political self-interest does not tell us whether a policy is a good one or a bad one.” Fine sounding, except he does not prove the existence of voter fraud, merely asserts it as fact. Republicans always claim they just want to prevent voter fraud, yet investigation after investigation has failed to uncover the hordes of people who supposedly voted illegally, either in 2020 or in recent decades. 

Williamson is wrong about the so-called “tradeoff.” The supposed trade is unequal: It calls for Democrats to agree to prevent something — voter fraud — that rarely, if ever, happens while allowing Republicans to prevent certain classes of people from voting only because the more people who vote, the worse it is for the GOP. As former president Donald Trump said, if Democrats succeed in guaranteeing the vote for all, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

No one should be fooled by the slick rhetoric: The effect of the hundreds of bills Republicans are trying to push through state legislatures would be to make it harder for people of color and other Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote. But, Williamson is right about one thing: “The mere presence of self-interest” does not mean a policy is wrong. Surely, Democrats will benefit from expanding the franchise, but such a policy reflects historic trends in American voting and is the morally right thing to do. Surely, Republicans will benefit from restricting the ballot, but it is wrong policy not because such limits are in the party’s self-interest, but because the policy runs counter to history, any useful definition of democracy, and morality.

The right of all eligible citizens to vote is a policy Republicans — who once enfranchised the newly freed ex-slaves after the Civil War — no longer take for granted. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the voting-rights bill now moving through Congress “jaw-droppingly audacious.” Audacious because it puts teeth in federal enforcement of every person’s right to vote. “To give them credit,” McConnell said of Democrats, “they didn’t leave out a single thing they thought would advantage them and disadvantage us.” But, again, just because the bill advantages Democrats does not make it a bad measure.   

Republican attempts to suppress voting rights underscore their distrust of democratic rule. At the core of Williamson’s anti-democratic animus is his unwillingness to abide by the outcomes of majoritarian rule. “One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants,” Williamson writes. “That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter.”

Yes, the average American voter may not be as well-informed on the issues of the day as many would like. Yes, the average American voter often casts votes based on narrow self-interests and prejudices rather than on a comprehensive view of sound policy. But, again: Who decides? Who decides what is sound policy? Might as well reinstate a monarchy and trust the opinion of the king or queen.

Winston Churchill did not always practice what he democratically preached, but surely he was right when he said on the floor of the House of Commons in 1947, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

Posted April 9, 2021

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