Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Reality TV | Main | GOP dirty tricks primer: Part 1 »

October 26, 2004

Electoral Calvinism

Will Wilkinson writes:

A thought: Could it be that the sort of person likely to be "intimidated" out of voting isn't in general the sort of person who you want to be voting?

I hope Will isn't referring to eligible voters. We know who the most easily intimidated voters are. They are exactly the sort of people we want to vote. Our democracy is weaker because more "easily intimidated" people stay home.

What sort of people are easily intimidated? They're the sort of people who can't afford to miss work or pay a babysitter while they stand in line for three hours. They're the sort of people who won't get paid time off work to vote, even if they're legally entitled to it. Some of them are elderly or infirm. Some of them remember the bad old days when the intimidation was physical.

Some of them want to avoid screaming lawyers and racial profiling. Imagine you're not sure whether you want to vote, but you know there's a pretty good chance that some upstanding member of the Ohio Bar Association is going to get in your face because you look like a Democrat (read: poor and/or black).

Libertarians should like easily intimidated voters. They tend to have a healthy fear of authority and a general distrust of institutions. Just registering to vote was a big deal for a lot of easily intimidated voters.

This year, many Americans are taking their first steps towards active participation in democracy. We don't just want them to vote, we need them to vote.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Electoral Calvinism :

» Property Fetish? from Paperwight's Fair Shot
Shouldn't Wilkinson be raging against the overly invasive actions of these government agencies and the hijacking of their bureaucracies to serve partisan purposes? Shouldn't he want government to get out of the way of the individual, streamlining the ... [Read More]

» Stealing the Election 2004 Edition from ISOU
Important Notice: I am going to keep this post at the top for a while, as it is too important to dissapear off the page. Reader Feedback One of my readers points out this... in an attempt to piss me... [Read More]


Well, I was assuming that these are people more likely than average to be ill-informed. There is some reason to believe that increases in voter participation may reduce the quality of democratic choice. Explain, please, what you take the value of democratic participation to consist in. Surely you don't accept the fairy dust theory of democratic legitimacy!

By Calvinism, I assume you refer to Calvin Coolidge, a great champion of inaction and enemy to political busybodies everywhere!

The issue isn't whether increased voter turnout is intrinsically valuable. This is an issue of basic fairness. Some citizens face much greater obstacles to voting than others. If an eligible citizen wants to vote, they have a right to do so.

Moreover, low participation and low awareness are part of a vicious cycle. You have less incentive to become informed if you don't expect to vote, or if you doubt your vote will be counted. Democracy depends on a participatory culture. All other things being equal, the more engaged the citizens, the better the democracy.

Finally, there's the value of the contestants in the race having equal opportunities to persuade people to vote for them. If John Kerry wins the support of a voter, that voter shouldn't therefore face disproportionate obstacles to voting.

Thinly veiled racism is not a logical argument. "Assuming" that people who are intimidated because they are socially marginalized are "ignorant" is the worst kind of elitist bullshit. People who are sure of their place in the world are often as ignorant or more ignorant than marginalized folks, precisely because they get to take the world they live in for granted.

There is no question that all eligible citizens have a right to vote. That's pretty much guaranteed by the meaning of "eligible citizen," it would seem. And there was no assertion that some people should face disproportionate obstacles to voting. The question was whether it is desirable for all eligible citizens to cast votes, that is, for everyone to exercise their undisputed right. And if not, might it be case that folks who are easily dissuaded from voting are among those who failure to vote is not to be terribly regretted. I myself don't think that it is the case, but I thought it worth asking.

And I wasn't asking for an account of the intrinsic value of participation. The point about the relationship between participation and awareness may have some merit. But the assertion that, other things equal, more engagement = better democracy strikes me as wholeseome civic faith, for which there may or may not be a good argument. My question, then, is why should we believe it? Or, if it is true, is it really desirable to have a "better democracy?"

Maybe you're mostly interested in partisan indignation about the elections, but I'm genuinely interested in the philosophy of democracy.

bitchphd, Thanks for assuming the worst about me. (Not joking about the name, huh?)

"Marginalized folks" aren't "sure of their place in the world"? Elitist bullshit, indeed. ;)

You seem to be asking whether it's better if certain people don't vote. Or else, whether it's less morally serious to discourage some people from voting than others.

Specifically, you're wondering if the kind of people who are discouraged by voter intimidation are also the kind of people who would otherwise reduce "the quality of democratic choice."

I'm with Dr. B. on the empirical facts. I don't think that we have any reason to believe that the people who are discouraged by voter intimidation are less informed than their voting counterparts. In order to support your hypothesis, you would have to show not only that the groups targeted by voter suppression are less informed, but also that those who succumb to voter suppression are less informed than other members of the target demographic who manage to vote anyway. I'm just not aware of any data to support such a bold conjecture.

You asked me what I take the value of democratic participation to consist in. I'm arguing that whatever positive account of democratic legitimacy you choose, you have to agree that a democracy is undermined by systematic and discriminatory voter intimidation.

Come on, Will. Your question is taboo for a reason. It took a century for the Fifteenth Amendment to become a reality. If the Republicans are trying to undermine it now, this calls for outrage, not philosophy-seminar hypotheticals.

There is reason to believe that the Republican party is not interested in good faith efforts to validate voters in Ohio and is more concerned with trying to suppress the vote. First, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell attempted to invalidate thousands of new registrations on the ground that the forms were not on heavy paper stock as required by Ohio law, and backed down only when it was shown that enforcement of this law would violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Second, Larry Russell, the head of the Republican get-out-the vote operation in South Dakota, who was forced to resign over an absentee ballot fraud scandal there, was immediately transferred to run the operation in Ohio. Three of the operatives he brought with him are now under indictment in South Dakota, yet they continue to work on behalf of the RNC in Ohio.

I just checked the discussion on Wilkinson's statement on Matthew Yglesias's blog.

The problem here is the problem with analytical philosophy, and its implicit motto "never historicize." You cannot, in America, have a calm discussion of the consequentialist merits of voter suppression, because America has a history.

This isn't the ontology of number. People alive today got beaten within an inch of their lives trying to exercise their right to vote.

The legacy of those struggles is that it is taboo to explicitly justify voter suppression (although, of course, it continues to be practised). That taboo makes sense historically, like the taboo against virulent nationalism in Germany.

Not all taboos, even progressive taboos, are good, of course. Hence political correctness. But an Anglo philosophical education is dangerous if it just makes you insensitive to the privilege and arrogance implicit in calmly discussing whether it would be a good thing if the "easily intimidated" were unable to vote.

Besides the obvious racist/Social Darwinist shit behind Wilkinson's statement, there's an underlying ugliness -- very much part and parcel of the mindset that can see Bush as exuding strength, through both his policies and his personal demeanor.

I think Wilkinson is edging toward a good point. Here are some thoughts:

I like Wilkinson's question about whether there are certain people we'd just rather didn't vote. On one level, the answer to this question is: "Obviously, yes." For instance, those of us who are Kerry supporters would prefer that people who support Bush didn't vote. And we believe that this preference is grounded in something more than purely selfish motives. We believe that the country as a whole would be better off if Bush supporters stayed home. So I think that at least on one level, we all have to say "yes" to Wilkinson's question.

But I think Wilkinson's discussion is supposed to get at a deeper question than this. Let me try to get at this "deeper question" I see lurking in Wilkinson's discussion. Maybe Wilkinson will see this and correct me if I'm wrong.

Each voter uses a set of criteria to determine which candidate she wants to vote for. Her vote is determined by that set of criteria, combined with the beliefs she has about each candidate. This opens up the possibility of two kinds of mistakes she can make:

a. She might adopt a clearly irrelevant set of criteria (e.g., she might decide to vote for whichever csndidate has the nicest hair);
b. She might have mistaken beliefs about which candidate meets the criteria she adopts (e.g., she might decide to vote for whichever candidate would be likely to appoint a pro-life justice, but mistakenly believe that Kerry is the one likely to do that).

The question I take Wilkinson's discussion to be leading towards is this:

Would we be better off if people who make mistakes of either type (a) or type (b) did not vote?

I think this is a hard question and one worth asking. There are reasons to go either way on it. I take Lindsay to suggest that democracy is supposed to work by taking an equal and full measure of the preferences of all citizens. Thus, democracy works best when everyone votes. If we want democracy to work best, then, we should want everyone to vote - and this includes people who make mistakes of type (a) or type (b).

I think this conclusion is clearly false. I think we would be better off if people who make mistakes of type (b) abstained from voting. Indeed, I think we would be better off if people who make mistakes of type (b) were *prevented* from voting. Mistakes of type (a) are a tougher case.

Sorry, I didn't really end up going anywhere with this... I'll click "post" anyway.

When discussing "intimidation" or more broadly "obstacles" shouldn't we discuss what we mean by those terms? I tend to agree that a lot of what has been reported the past week has been amazingly distasteful - and appears to have been engaged in by both Democrats and Republicans. The more "technical" issues are somewhat understandable, since they are at least working within the system. Some of the other things, such as destroying voter cards, paying people to vote, vandalizing get out the vote offices, and so forth, are amazingly distressing.

On the other hand I think there are a class of actions that are justifiable. For instance if one creates a voter sheet like the ones if Florida from 2000, I think we ought to be able to assume a certain level of ability such that people can fill it out. i.e. privileging intent beyond capability in these cases seems pragmatically troubling.

Having said that though, there is a clear problem if "stupid" people don't vote. (Note I don't think stupidity is limited to any particular group nor do I think it necessarily even correlates with most attributes people discuss) Clearly there will be certain needs the "intellectually challenged" will have that the rest of us will overlook. By voting they get to establish those things.

Were we to limit voting to those of a certain education, all we'll end up with is a certain tyranny by oversight. Some may debate this, but I think it would happen. (Indeed I think it does happen to those groups that don't vote in a way that make politicians notice them) I'm opposed to theories that limit voting to property owners, the intelligent or other such categories.

The problem I see, however, is that all these debates about intimidating can themselves be abused to try and bias the vote or even engage in voter fraud.

Man I can't wait until the election is over...


A word of advice can be found over at the New Donkey. As the man says, trying to play Bull Connor without the fire hose is hazardous to one's health. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

I'm starting to like those DLCers.

The Republican Party is about to engage in the most coordinated attack on minority voting rights since the sixties. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is a good or bad thing if an otherwise Bush-oriented voter decides not to vote.

Gareth, as I said, I don't think this is all that is going on though. There is more than enough crap going on in both parties. Those of us, like myself, who don't find either candidate particularly attractive, and who are finding ourselves put off by the rhetoric of both parties, are finding the activities of the last couple of weeks particularly horrifying.

What is worse, is how few Democratics are willing to criticize the activities of their own party and vice versa for the Republicans. I'm quite shocked, for instance, at how many GOP headquarters have actually been *shot at*.

Just when I think our political situation can't get any worse, there it goes. A consequence of no particular mandate and a closeness to the election which encourages these sorts of extremely dishonest behaviors.

Actually, I think that the ahistorical analytic philosophy of democracy angle can be enlightening here, and it doesn't point at all the way Will W. thinks it will.

Will's hypothesis (which he never actually endorsed) rests on at least three philosophical assumptions about democracy, all of which I think are false.

1. The only value of a democratic decision making procedure is that it yields the correct results.

2. The correct results for a decision procedure can be defined independently of the people that procedure represents.

3. The collective rationality of a polity is best served by having individuals who are maximally rational.

Assumption (1) is false for all those, like me, who share the intuition that it would be better to be self-ruled than ruled by a perfectly benevolent, all-knowing dictator.

I'm not sure how to argue against assumption (2)although I take it that Clark Goble's post above also rejects it.

Assumption (3) isn't true for the sciences, so why should it be true of a democracy? It turns out in the sciences that it is helpful for the group to have people who hold doggedly to a hypothesis, even when they should rationally reject it. There could easily be something similar going on in political decision making.

I should say that I haven't looked at the comments on the other boards that are discussing this (because I should be working) so I am probably repeating what is said elsewhere.

In any case, the claim that there are some people who shouldn't vote indicates a misunderstanding, to my mind, of the value of democracy.


Gable said:
"Having said that though, there is a clear problem if "stupid" people don't vote. (Note I don't think stupidity is limited to any particular group nor do I think it necessarily even correlates with most attributes people discuss) Clearly there will be certain needs the "intellectually challenged" will have that the rest of us will overlook. By voting they get to establish those things."

The problem with this is that "stupid people" aren't able to determine their own interests, and aren't able to determine which candidate is likely to further their own interests. So there is no reason to think that the votes of stupid people force politicians to pay attention to their interests.

Look at it this way. If an informed and intelligent voter votes for Kerry, the politicans will assume that there are certain facts about Kerry's policies/views/tendencies/etc that this voter likes. Then politicans will try to emulate those facts. But when an uninformed/unintelligent voter votes for Kerry, the politicans will assume that something about Kerry's ads, or Kerry's hair, or Kerry's stage presence, or Kerry's bumper stickers, or whatever, did the trick. So they will try to emulate these things.

I don't think most of us realize just how much "stupid people" really do drag the whole process down. Elections are mostly, or at least largely, determined by which candidate has the best PR people. The reason for this is that so many stupid people, who can literally by moved to vote a certain way by the association of rabid wolves with a particular candidate, are allowed to muddy the waters with their votes.

I'm not saying stupid people shouldn't be allowed to vote. I'm only saying that the argument that stupid people should be allowed to vote because in voting, they represent their interests to the politicians, just doesn't work. Their votes don't represent their interests because (a) they don't know their own interests and (b) they don't know which candidate best suits their interests. (And (c) even if they knew these two things, they'd still vote on the basis of other, clearly irrelevant, factors.)

a couple more things,

1. The urge to say that easily intimidated voters are politically ignorant or irrational comes, I think, from confusing easily intimidated voters from swing voters. Swing voters are people who are likely to vote, but haven't made up their minds yet. It is easy, although perhaps wrong, to throw up your hands at them and say "you've had four years, what's wrong with you!" Easily intimidated voters, on the other hand, might have well informed preferences which they have never expressed because of a history of disenfranchisement.

2. In any case, I don't think that Will's question should be read as an empirical one anyway. Before we can ask "are easily intimidated voters likely to be politically ignorant or irrational?" we need to ask "can the value of democracy ever be increased by excluding adult citizens?"

ok, I'm going to work now. That's why I'm at the office. I'm working. Working hard. Really.


You make some good points on the ahistorical analytic philosophy of democracy side.

However, ahistorical philosophy can, at most, generate the conclusion that intimidation of voters and voter fraud are approximately equal evils. American history can add the perspective that intimidating "likely Democratic" voters (and we all know who they are) is a particularly evil thing for the party of Lincoln to be up to.

"The problem with this is that "stupid people" aren't able to determine their own interests, and aren't able to determine which candidate is likely to further their own interests."

The issue isn't whether they can determine their interests perfectly, but whether they can do so in ways better than an elite can. (i.e. the intelligent voters)

The problem with many critiques is that they simply recognize democracy isn't perfect. This seems a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. The issue for me is whether democracy is better than the alternatives and whether allowing uninformed or stupid people to vote is better than excluding them. I think for various reasons (not the least being resentment and blindness of certain issues by elites) that it is better to have them included than excluded.

Rob, I think the urge to say that intimidated voters are stupid comes from the whole inability to use the ballot in 2000. I think that unfortuante as there is more going on, just as there is more going on in intimidation than Democrat inclined minorities. (i.e. those missing 60,000 ballots primarily representing Republican oriented voters)

The bigger question about whether a democracy is better than a benevolent dictator. I tend to think the dictator would be better (hey, I'm Christian and think God would make a great dictator). However I think that in practice, no benevolent dictatorship would stay benevolent or wise.

David, just to add to my above comments, I think many "stupid" voters are really single issue voters or worry about issue many others might not find most important. However I think it important that those issues get brought up in the democratic process. I might think, for instance, that it is stupid to vote against Kerry solely because of abortion or to vote against Bush solely because of medical insurance, given the more important place I think military matters ought to play. But I think single issue voting can be important. (Thus I've never criticized people like Andrew Sullivan who appear to be Bush oriented in every policy except gay marriage -- an issue I don't think Bush will be able to affect much in practice)


Isn't the Christian doctrine of free will in part a claim that humans are better off free than under the thumb of an omnipotent, omnicient, omnibenevalent dictator?

If you are a theist and believe in free will, what better endorsement of self rule could you find than the fact that the entity that knows the most about us decided not to be our personal dictator?

I never listen to God's electoral recommendations after that whole House of David fiasco.

A good case could be made that one freely enters into the dictatorship. i.e. it is a dictatorship whose authority is granted freely by the people. Clearly not everyone buys that, but it does seem like at various times God tells people relatively precisely what to do. I don't think anyone could buy Israel as a democracy. Also, I'd add that one is a free agent even within a dictatorship.

While I'd reject any dictator other than God for the reasons I mentioned (i.e. corruption and the problem of succession) I'm not sure one really can use Christian conceptions of free will (whether compatibilist or libertarian) to argue persuasively for democracy.

Gable said:
"The issue isn't whether they can determine their interests perfectly, but whether they can do so in ways better than an elite can. (i.e. the intelligent voters)"

I think it's quite clear that there are at least some people which would be better off *personally* if their votes were not counted. If we say that these are "the stupid people," then quite clearly, there are some people who cannot determine their interests in ways better than the intelligent voters can.

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose there were 100 people in the country. Suppose 20 of these are paranoid schizophrenics who base their support of Candidate X on their belief that Candidate Y is an alien.

Now consider two scenarios:
(A) the "sane 80" are allowed to vote but the schizophrenics aren't, and
(B) all 100 citizens are allowed to vote.

Which scenario should we prefer if we want to further the interests of the schizophrenics?

It might turn out that the votes of the schizophrenics make the difference in this election. For instance, it might turn out that in scenario (A), Candidate Y gets elected, while in scenario (B), Candidate X gets elected. And it might just be that Candidate Y has a stringently anti-schizophrenic agenda. In that case, the inclusion of schizophrenics in this election has indeed furthered the schizophrenics' interests.

But is there any reason to think that the schizophrenics' inclusion in the process has made it *more likely* that a president who represents their interests in elected? The answer is no. With respect to their own interests, the schizophrenics' decision-making process was utterly random. They based their vote on their mistaken belief that Y was an alien; had things gone differently, they might have mistakenly believed that X was the alien rather than Y. In that case, they would have brought about the election of the candidate who *least* represented their interests.

In general, whenever people such as the schizophrenics side with the "right guy" (i.e. the guy whose policies match their interests), it is a coincidence. Since their choice is utterly irrespective of their actual interests, they will just as often vote against their own interests as they will vote in alignment with them.

The thought experiment just discussed is "single-shot." That is, the thought experiment represents only one round of elections. The situation gets worse for the schizophrenics if we iterate scenario (B) over successive election cycles. If the schizophrenics are repeatedly included in the electoral process, and if they always make their choice on the basis of who they (mistakenly) believe is an alien, then politicians will come to realize that if they can convince the schizophrenics that their opponent is an alien, they will win the schizophrenic vote. So eventually a good portion of the debate preceding each election will be devoted to arguments aimed at schizophrenics which try to show that one or the other guy is an alien.

There are many obvious ways in which this development is bad. For instance, it is bad because the time devoted to questions about who is an alien could be more productively spent on discussion of actually relevant issues. One of those issues might have been the plight of schizophrenics. So as the schizophrenics' misperceptions of their own interests are brought more and more into the democratic process, the true interests of the schizophrenics get more and more swept aside.

The example just described is pretty out-there, but I don't think it's as out-there as it might seem. Each election cycle we see more and more "non-issues" brought into the national discussion. (I call them "non-issues" because they are irrelevant to literally everyone's actual concerns.) These non-issues become part of our national discussion solely because some sizeable percentage of eligible voters mistakenly believes they concern relevant questions.

Contrary to what Gable and others have suggested, the effect of the inclusion of these non-issues is not to make the mistaken voters' actual interests more relevant to the process. The effect is actually the opposite of this. Since so much time is devoted to answering questions which are irrelevant to everybody, there is little time left to discuss issues which might actually help the mistaken voters make a sound decision.

What does all this mean? Again, it does not mean - not yet anyway - that paranoid schizophrenics or other obviously mistaken people should not be allowed to vote. What it means, though, is that we cannot argue that they should be allowed to vote on the ground that in voting, their interests get "thrown into the mix." If they are mistaken about their interests, then their votes will not reflect their actual interests; instead, their votes will reflect their mistakes.

Clark G.,

Maybe I missed it but where’s your evidence that Democrats are engaging in voter intimidation? Sorry I have neither heard nor seen any such acts by the Democratic Party(and spare me any “liberal media” crap, it ain’t true.)

You say you are shocked by how many GOP HQ’s have been shot at, but where, when and how many were vandalized to make you so appalled.

Regardless, the act of a few crazies hardly reaches the level of a coordinated effort like the one we see directed from RNC offices against minority voters.

The comments to this entry are closed.