March 10, 2005

Voting as Allocation of Power Among Political Equals, Or Voting as an Intelligence Test?

Bob Bauer recently remarked that if "FEC Commissioner Brad Smith did not exist, members of the reform community would work hard to invent him." In a similar spirit, I am glad that Jonah Goldberg has written this oped on ex-felon voting for the Los Angeles Times (link via Brian Leiter).

In my draft article on election administration reform, I discuss one of my three reform proposals---to couple universal voter registration conducted by the government with government-issued voter identification (VID). Part of my discussion deals with potential criticisms, and it includes the following:

    I see three potential objections to this package deal from the Republican side. First, there is the cost associated with this government program. It will no doubt be expensive for the federal government to create and maintain this massive database and to provide VIDs with photographs and biometric information for every eligible voter. Second, at least some Republicans likely still maintain the notion that it should not be so easy for people to vote. Under this view, registration barriers will segregate out those voters who are likely to be less intelligent or less concerned. Third, the plan has significant federalism costs by taking away registration powers from the 13,000 local electoral jurisdictions and placing that role in the hands of the federal government.

One thoughtful reader of my draft argued that I should give contemporary examples of Republicans who maintain the notion that it should not be so easy to vote, believing that my characterization was unfair. (I do offer a quote from the Texas attorney general in 1971 (who I assume was a Democrat, but I have not checked), who defended his state's onerous voter registration requirements as follows: “those who overcome the annual hurdle of registering at a time remote to the fall elections will more likely be better informed and have greater capabilities of making an intelligent choice than those who do not care enough to register.”) But would a contemporary thinker make such an argument? Consider Goldberg's statement from the oped:
    Should felons be allowed to vote? Maybe. If you believe in federalism, then there's no reason why this shouldn't be left to the states, which is where I'm fine leaving it, along with gay marriage and almost every other issue. But as a matter of principle, I oppose voting by ex-cons because voting should be harder, not easier — for everybody.

    Of course, Marion Barry and Hillary Clinton see things differently. The principle behind Clinton's proposed legislation — which would make voting easier for criminals and noncriminals alike — is that the nation's democracy is "enriched" when more people vote.

    Who says? If you are having an intelligent conversation with somebody, is it enriched if a mob of uninformed louts, never mind ex-cons and rapists, barges in? People who want to make voting easier are in effect saying that those who previously didn't care or know enough about the country to vote are exactly the kind of voters this country needs now.

My question is, how widespread is sentiment for Goldberg's notion? Should voting be viewed as an intelligence test rather than the means for allocating power among political equals? And even if one wants to exclude "uninformed louts," are felon disenfranchisement rules and onerous registration requirements the best way to do so? There may be good arguments for continued disenfranchisement of felons, but I would hope that this kind of argument is completely unacceptable in today's society.

Posted by Rick Hasen at March 10, 2005 09:08 AM