By: Carl Graham, President, Montana Policy Institute
A bill that would have mandated voting by mail was killed in the Montana House of Representatives last week. I say good riddance. And if you care about the efficacy of our democratic process then I think you should also be happy to see it go quietly into the night.
The bill did have some good measures on voter verification and things like that. Many of them should find a new home and become law.
But at the risk of ramping up the rhetoric with military metaphors (and abundant alliteration), when North Vietnamese General Giap was told that he had never defeated the American army on the battlefield he replied “That is true. It is also irrelevant.” The arguments made for mail-in ballots were also true. And they were also irrelevant.
These arguments as I understood them were more or less as follows: first, that relieving voters from the rigors of showing up at a specific location to indicate their choices on whom should represent them and the policies that should govern them would result in greater numbers of ballots cast, or voter turnout, thus enhancing the apparent defining measure of democracy.
And second, that mail-in ballots would be cheaper and easier to administer than setting up polling stations, thus relieving in treasure and time the burdens our counties must expend in the administration of democracy.
Both arguments are undoubtedly true; and also irrelevant.
The first argument enshrines voter turnout as the hallmark of democratic quality. This is plain silly, as demonstrated by the fact that the old Soviet Union, Cuba, and any number of other decidedly non-democratic states routinely have touted universal voting rates, at the barrel of a gun if necessary. Why not just make driver’s license renewal contingent upon voting records if universal turnout is the goal?
The answer is simple: the turnout argument confuses the Fact of voting with the Act of voting. The Fact of voting is placing a check in a box and returning the ballot. The Act of voting involves participating in the process of self governance, which includes educating oneself and making responsible decisions based upon ones principles and interests. Democracy isn’t just voting; it’s participating. That’s why it’s called Participatory Democracy and not Checking-The-Box Democracy.
Receiving a packet in the mail, filling it out according to someone else’s “advice” or the last political commercial you heard, and then licking the envelope and sending it in creates the Fact of voting. Doing your homework, considering the issues, conscientiously registering your preferences and, if you’re able consorting with your fellow citizens, is the Act of voting: of participating in the democratic process. And if someone can’t show up in person, we already have absentee ballots. But you have to ask for one, thus providing at least some indication that you care enough to be a participant and not just a box filler.
And then there’s the argument that mail-in ballots would save money. Economic arguments are often the weakest because they’re based on math rather than principle. We can find the money if our principles demand it. The difficult part is resisting the temptation to spend other people’s money on unimportant things. Our democratic process is an important thing.
If we need to spend more money supporting those who oversee it then I can think of no more important investment. Or how about taking some of the folks in county planning departments and state agencies who are busy writing regulations that restrict our freedoms and moving them to polling stations where they can help defend our most basic right of citizenship?
You won’t hear me say “Spend what it takes” very often, but in this case we should do just that to ensure a truly participatory democratic process.
For Immediate Release
Carl Graham is president of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research and education center based in Bozeman, MT.
He can be reached at:
67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B
Bozeman, MT 59715