Voting Dogs and Democratic Fairy Dust By Will Wilkinson

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?

A lot of the coverage, both formal and informal, of the forthcoming apocalypse in Ohio strikes me as implicitly accepting a really quite stupid bit of democratic romanticism: that it is better that 100 illegitimate votes be counted than to let one legitimate vote go uncounted.

The implicit picture is that voting is a sort of magical expression of citizenship that mystically confers “legitimacy” upon democratically decided results. If some citizens vote, but have their votes tossed out, or if some citizens decide it is too much hassle to get to the polls, then each lost vote is a drop drained from the bucket of legitimacy.

This is an utterly bizzare way of looking at democratic legitimacy, but seems to be part of the civics course democracy catechism, about which journalists especially pretend to be devout. This is why we hear cries of lament if there is low voter turnout. How can democracy be the people’s authentic voice if the people refuse to speak! How can we frolic in the sparkling waters of democracy if the bucket of legitimacy is but half full?

The strange thing is that the press seems to treat illegitimate votes as a kind of noise, a kind of tolerable if unfortunate democratic static, while intimidated no-shows are a travesty against all that is holy. Yet, and this should be obvious, in terms of the aggregative democratic procedure, an unnoticed illegal vote for one guy (in a two horse race) is EXACTLY EQUIVALENT to scaring off a voter for the other guy.

If somebody’s dog manages to vote for John Kerry, then, in effect, Velma Thompson (or whomever) failed to vote for that nice man, George W. Bush, even though she tried. Whiskers cancels out Velma. Here’s another way to make the same point. Each Bush vote is paired with a Kerry vote and they’re both thrown away. The winner is the one who has votes left on the table after all the other guy’s votes have been chucked. Pairing legitimate voters with voting felons, dogs, corpses, and Frenchmen has precisely the same effect on the outcome as shooting legitimate voters before they can get in the door of the high school gym.

Republican vigilance about keeping illegal voters from voting is democratically equivalent to Democratic vigilance against Republican attempts to suppress the legal vote. Republican vigilance has the semi-intended side-effect of suppressing likely Democratic votes. And huge Democratic registration and GOTV drives have the semi-intended side-effect of canceling out a large number of Republican votes with illegal ballots. I bet I can tell from your party affiliation which you think is worse.

The press, as far as I can tell, seems to think Republican vigilance is worse. If one has the popular magical view of democratic legitimacy, Velma’s participation itself sprinkles a bit of fairy dust of legitimacy on the entire proceedings. Voting dogs, lacking the relevant legal status, have no fairy dust to contribute, but their votes don’t take any fairy dust away. Velma expressed herself, that’s what matters, and you can’t take that away! Because we want the MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF DEMOCRATIC FAIRY DUST, we shouldn’t complain if a huge turnout, and a huge amount of fairy dust, also entails a sizable turnout of the dead, canine, and alien. And, anyway, why shouldn’t their votes count?

If you enjoyed this column by Will Wilkinson, you can read more of his work at The Fly Bottle.

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