Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mandatory Voting?

While looking into the question as to whether or not voting should be mandatory, I found this from a New York Times op-ed piece by Jason Brennan, an assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University (Nov. 7, 2011):

"Imagine Betty wants to help people, but has crazy beliefs about how to help them. Betty steals food from the starving. She kicks the injured. She takes money from the poor. Betty has noble intentions, but no one needs her help.

The best scientific studies tell us that citizens act like Betty at the voting booth. Voters have noble intentions. Yet they have systematically false beliefs about basic economics, political science and foreign policy. When We the People vote, we make bad choices, and we get what we choose.

The median voter is incompetent at politics. The citizens who abstain are, on average, even more incompetent. If we force everyone to vote, the electorate will become even more irrational and misinformed. The result: not only will the worse candidate on the ballot get a better shot at winning, but the candidates who make it on the ballot in the first place will be worse.

Most people believe that more voting causes better government. This is an article of faith, not fact. Social scientists have shown that higher quality government tends to cause higher turnout. But higher turnout does not cause higher quality government."

Now incompetence in voting is in the eye of the beholder. Is this esteemed elitist in effect saying that higher voting turnouts bring out the Red State contingent? Reading the piece itself, this is not crystal clear.

And what are the hallmarks of voting incompetence? The good professor really did not give guidelines for determining this, except alluding to scientific studies in which a competent decision is based on someone's opinion, like Prof. Brennan and talking about his good-intentioned straw woman Betty who kicks and robs from the poor. It seems to me that he failed to distinguish between matters of opinion and matters of fact.

The values of pi and the base of natural logarithms are a matter of fact. If I have an opinion that pi is 3 or 3.01, I'm wrong! In today's computational world, very wrong. Conversely, I can have an opinion that we should abolish the TSA. That's an opinion. But whether or not it's a good idea is a matter of lively debate.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings there were a lot of opinions that the cartoons should have been published by mainstream media. David Brooks, of the same NYT, argued that they should not, as a matter of taste. He has a right to his opinion, one that I share. Not out of cowardice, but because nice people do not insult others' cherished religious beliefs. 

Anyway, the best position with regard to the quality of voting resulting from mandatory voting is an agnostic one: we absolutely don't know.

My opinion is that voting should not be mandatory because (in my opinion) our governments on every level should be minimally coercive in terms of affecting peoples' lives. Therefore, we should not have dry counties (like next door Limestone County, for example), limit reasonable lawn decorations (plastic flamingoes are Southern folk art), singing the blues, and women wearing skimpy swimsuits! And certainly, Alabama adults should be able to exercise the option of voting, going fishing, or having an extra cup of coffee on election day. But I base this opinion on the notion that freedom itself is a societal value. Mandatory voting makes us less free.


  1. Do we have many advocates of mandatory voting? What could be their rationale? I know a bunch of countries do, but is this a wise policy? Keeping an open mind.

  2. There's always going to be some busybody telling you to vote, and then telling you how.

  3. "Social scientists have shown that higher quality government tends to cause higher turnout. But higher turnout does not cause higher quality government." This is true. Look at how the crazies turn out to elect people like Ted Cruz, Randy Weber, and Sarah Palin.

  4. Mandatory voting has as much chance as a snowball in Hell.

  5. The Writer Brennan seems to indulge in whimsical thinking about what typical voters are like.

  6. People would be more likely to vote when there are better candidates.

  7. There should be an elimination system of voting that would make all the parties relevant.