Voting Rights Schmoting Rights


“If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal.” These are the words of Megan McArdle in a sad, but amusing, piece telling you not to vote. And she’s right: your vote, at least in federal elections, is pretty worthless. Even in smaller House elections, over 80% of incumbents win.

But she’s not the only person that’s been talking about voting recently. The Left has been quite upset over new voter ID laws being implemented around the country. John Oliver even did a long segment on it.

I like John Oliver as a political commentator (and in Community). His sharp wit combines biting commentary with excellent humor, and the format of his show allows a deep dive on interesting issues. I try to watch as many of those segments as possible (they are available for free on YouTube) despite the vast differences in the way he and I view the world.  Oliver’s analysis provides great starting points for discussion, and he helps me understand many critiques of issues that I would never have thought of.

While I don’t really disagree with him on the basic issue of voter ID laws, I feel like he’s missed the more profound problem about American democracy: voting is just a gimmick.

How can this be? Voting is a fundamental right!  America was founded as a grand experiment in democracy! Yes, voting is very important to Americans, but why?  In fact, what is a voting right?


Voting rights are different from some other things we call “rights”. For example, you have a right to freedom of speech, to criticize the government and others; this means the state cannot stop you from expressing yourself. The state also can’t outlaw guns, hold you without charging you, or outlaw abortions in the first trimester; these are some of many rights which constrain government action. What interests me right now is not whether any of these rights are “good” or “bad” for society, just how they exist in our legal system.   Now, if you get charged with a crime, you are guaranteed other rights such as a speedy trial and a public lawyer.  These are not restrictions on government, but duties which the state must provide.  Voting rights are in this second category; there is a duty on the government to allow citizens to vote.

Rights are also not an on/off switch. They can be on a gradient of robustness. Our free speech rights are robust in most public areas of the United States, but gun rights are most robust within your home and least robust in large public events. Our right to a speedy trial is not robust, and neither is the right to a public defender (just ask John Oliver); these rights exist, but the government could really do them better.  This is true of many government duty “rights”. Your right to a public defender, for example, is essentially insatiable; even if they gave you the best legal team in the world, you could always have more legal teams.

Here’s the real problem: voting rights are not only not robust, they might be the weakest rights we have.

You might disagree: “A right to vote is very simple and clear, it’s written right in the constitution!”  Which is sort of true. In the original constitution, and in the bill of rights, there was actually no explicit right to vote. The method for choosing the electors for the electoral college had to occur on the same day in all states, but there remains no rules about how those electors must be selected. In fact, some groups have considered taking advantage of this situation; if states that contain more than 270 electoral votes were to collectively agree to force their electors to back the popular vote winner, the presidential election would become a popular vote. This could lead to the remarkable situation where a state could hugely favor one candidate over another, but have all its electors go to the candidate that was highly unpopular (at least in that state).

Other amendments changed some of this. The thirteenth amendment ordained that states would have their representation reduced if they denied the vote to any male citizens above the age of 21 who had committed no crime. This applied to any election: federal, statewide, or state legislator. The fourteenth amendment added that the right to vote can’t be denied because of race. The seventeenth amendment added that Senators were to be elected by popular vote, while the nineteenth stopped states from denying the right to vote based on sex (some states already had universal suffrage). Later amendments reduced the voting age to 18 and eliminated the poll tax.


Despite all these changes, it’s hard to imagine a more useless right you have than the “right to vote”.  Like the never cited right to refuse to quarter troops in your home, your right to vote just doesn’t get used much.  Occasionally, there will be a stark contrast between candidates in a close election and you can finally cast that decisive ballot…but not usually.  The vast majority of elections are not close. The smaller an election is, the more likely it is for your vote to be decisive, but the less likely any voters can make informed decisions on it, since the cost to learn about the election is higher than the actual implications of a small election (this is referred to as rational ignorance). Moreover, even if an election is a real race between two viable alternatives, voter preferences are often not transitive due to many issues voters care about, and a two person race is a terrible reflection on a multi-issue election, where each issue could have several dimensions.  If you would like any empirical evidence of our democracy’s shortcomings, check out the upcoming presidential choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Have fun expressing your preferences with that dumpster fire.

Viable candidates can only appear on the ballot after they have made it through their respective party’s primaries which means that any ideas outside of the main political dichotomy are essentially dead on arrival.  Not to mention that voters have to think strategically about which candidate is most likely to appeal to a broad range, meaning they are likely to sacrifice even more of what they believe to get an electable person who only vaguely resembles what they really want. Of course, once a candidate is elected, there is no input from voters on what they do and whether voters approve; the election is not conditional on a candidate voting a specific way once in office, and indeed, there is no way for a voter to directly affect legislation at all.  For example, suppose you would consider voting for a candidate if they changed their stance on a single issue; there is no way to communicate this feeling through voting.

When the candidate is back for reelection, there is no voting feedback they can get except a rough yes-or-no.  This is the same problem as before: the imperfect mapping of a multi-dimensional, multi-issue voter preference onto a single two person race.  Only this time, there is an incumbent who has a massive advantage in retaining his or her office, further skewing the distance between voter preference and policy results.  Many Americans look at this situation and come to the same conclusion as Megan McArdle: why bother voting at all?

At every stage of this process, the role of the voter is quite limited.  Yes, there are other ways to be involved in policy and democracy, and those ways are far more important than voting; but we are talking about voting rights, not rights to petition a congressmen or write to a senator.  As a culture, Americans hold voting and democracy very highly, but in practice, voting doesn’t contribute much to the democratic system. I’m not even arguing that this is necessarily a bad system, it’s simply undemocratic; some of the checks on democratic power were by design, not mistake. Indeed, when there are direct referendums on law, voters often make terrible decisions.  But it’s downright bizarre to say citizens have the “right” to cast a couple ballots every election cycle, mostly among bad choices that don’t embody what a voter really wants, and where the candidates will receive little to no feedback on what their voters liked or didn’t like about their positions. What kind of right is this?

Our voting system is analogous to an alternate dimension where citizens are surveyed a few times every couple years asking them what they like to eat for dinner, and the results of this determine what food the entire country eats for dinner for the entire cycle.  The November survey is always between two different, but very bland, meals that are mostly unchanged for the past twenty years. Individual survey results have basically no effect on the outcome, and every now and then surveys are ignored completely.  In this alternate dimension, John Oliver worries a small group of people won’t be able to submit their surveys this year due to new regulation. Strictly speaking, this is a definitely worse than the alternative, but the system is so terrible it’s hard for me to get more disgruntled.


Before I conclude, I’m guessing one reason John Oliver didn’t go into these details is that he’s got his own biases. During his voting rights segment, he makes a nice crack about how difficult it can be to get a government ID by citing the example of Sauk City, Wisconsin which only has its ID office open every 5th Wednesday of the month, a phenomenon that only occurs four times in 2016! That was pretty crazy, so I looked into it.  Turns out, Sauk City is a town of about three and a half thousand. I’m honestly shocked there is any ID office at all (there isn’t a DMV). There’s a relatively close ID office about 20 minutes away (open only 2 days a week, and obviously they’d have to Uber/Lyft), and there’s a full DMV in Madison about 30 minutes away (open every weekday).  Should government offices be easier to access for citizens? Yes. Should as many services as possible be done online or through the mail? Yes. Is this an honest representation by John Oliver? Not really.

Also, early in John Oliver’s segment he rebuts some Republicans who have claimed voter ID laws only affect a small amount of people. Oliver dismisses this argument (rightly I think) as silly, since the people who don’t have IDs are significantly affected; their voting rights are being curtailed.  But then…should we oppose all government curtailment of rights because some people are harmed? Is that the stance John Oliver would take on gun rights? How about a person’s right to purchase medicine which hasn’t yet been approved by the FDA? These strike me as similar situations, yet I doubt John Oliver would agree with himself on other topics.

Despite everything I’ve said, we shouldn’t use the fact that voting rights are worthless to take away from the fact that voting ID laws really are stupid. Supposing you do think voting is a fundamental right (if an unhelpful one), do you think you should require a government issued ID to have other rights?  Oh you wanted to protest? Let’s see your ID. You want a trial by jury? I’m sorry we can’t give you one if you don’t have a government issued ID card. It’s absurd.  In the Heritage Foundation’s 147 page list of examples of voter fraud, the vast majority were small time offenses where someone possible defrauded 2 or 3 votes. Forgive me if I don’t quake in fear at a isolated incidences of handfuls of ballot fraud, while the average Senate election margin of victory is 22 percentage points.  Conservatives and progressives usually pick and choose which rights they cared about, but that doesn’t need to be the way it always works.

We need to comprehend the shortfalls of democratic governance, shortfalls which are monumental (see Clarkhat), in all aspects of politics, not just places where they hurt our “tribe”. It’s certainly possible that people on the left agree with me that there are deeper problems with the system, but then again I’m not sure they acknowledge that these problems go beyond campaign finance.  I think these issues are inherent in democracy itself; the interest groups or institutions that decide which rules govern a democratic election must determine that election’s outcome. This is John Oliver’s message about voting rights, but it applies to every single aspect of democracy.  Reform isn’t impossible, and in future posts, I’ll look at some ideas to improve American democracy. But don’t get your hopes up.  All democracies must have rules that govern their elections,  and as long as there are rules, the people who choose the rules have the real power.


Photo Credit: Vox Efx on Flickr. CC-BY-2.0.