Thursday, October 21, 2004

Who Has the Right To Vote?

I observed in a post the other day that when Republicans talk about "voter fraud," they are typically not talking about illegal voters or ballot-box stuffing, but about perfectly eligible voters who fail to figure out and overcome official acts of incompetence or malice, such as complicated ballots and registration forms, voter registrar errors, or poorly advertised changes in polling places.

Leave it to George Will to offer a High Tory rationalization for this shoddy way of thinking about the right to vote. In his WaPo column today, Will suggests the belief that eligible voters should get every benefit of the doubt in registration and vote-counting decisions is emblematic of the "liberal" refusal to understand that rights carry responsibilities.

This is pretty rich coming from a columnist who recently penned an obsequious ode to the power and glory of the NRA, an organization notable for its belief that the right to bear arms is absolute, excluding even the most common-sense safety limitations, even if there's a little collateral damage now and then in terms of kids killed by gun accidents or square citizens blown away by crazy people.

Hypocrisy aside, Will's "rights and responsibilities" rap on voting doesn't pass the smell test. Burdening the exercise of fundamental rights of citizenship with "responsibilities" that don't contribute to any positive public good is a very dangerous practice. Sure, voters could spend days doing research into stupid ballot designs, redundant requirements for proof of eligibility, changes in precincts and voting locations, "provisional" ballot rules, redistrictings and (in Texas, at least) re-redistrictings, and every other official decision that might affect their votes. But who, exactly, would suffer from safeguard measures aimed at ensuring to the maximum extent possible that eligible voters get to express their actual intent? Incompetent election officials? Partisans interested in suppressing certain categories of votes? Republican candidates for office?

Will sniffs that "voter carelessness" should righteously bear the "condign punishment of an unrecorded preference." Who is he to say what represents "voter carelessness?" I personally think people who vote for George W. Bush because they think he's kept America safe from another terrorist attack are being pretty damn "careless," but you don't see me trying to impose actual knowledge of the president's record as a "responsibility" that must be discharged before they exercise their right to vote.

Back when conservative columnists set higher standards for themselves, William F. Buckley, Jr., used to frankly argue for "placing potholes" between voters and the ballot box on grounds that a restricted franchise would yield a more determined and educated electorate. That was an honest, if benighted viewpoint. If George Will agrees with it, he should say so, instead of claiming that clear and uniform policies aimed at letting voters vote are the civic equivalent of riotous libertinism. His own careless reasoning should earn him the "condign punishment" of a snort of dismissal.
-- Posted at 5:05 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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