Sunday, November 05, 2006

Unintended Consequences

I have posted here, and in a guest editorial in the Standard-Times, and made clear that I do not trust e-voting machines required by HAVA, the Help America Vote Act. For the first time in 14 years, I will not be serving as Precinct judge/alternate judge in a major election because I cannot in good conscience tell my voters their votes will be accurately recorded.

There is another unintended consequence of election “reform” I address here. The earlier Motor Voter Act is generally praised as a good thing. What can possibly be wrong with anything that increases voter registration? Here I introduce a contrarian view.

Face it, a certain percentage of the eligible electorate simply does not give a hoot about political policy. If they read the paper, they read the sports reports, the comics, Dear Abby. Such TV news as they accidentally see is as they channel surf to a sitcom. Mind you, I have no beef about taste in media intake, but why by all that is holy do we want to encourage the willfully uninformed to vote for or against candidates or questions about which they know nothing?

I recall a few years ago, my county chairman suggested we make a voter registration drive part of our campaign. I rose to point out that we would be wasting our time plowing already tilled ground, as I thought something like 80% of eligible voters were already registered, a figure he thought was way high. Well, I was wrong. It was actually closer to 85%.

If this seems incredible, think “Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes”. The company really does give some lucky soul a barrel of bucks and they clearly state that no purchase is required for entry, but how many entrants might still think their chances are enhanced by buying a subscription or two? The same principle is at work with Motor Voter. When every interaction of people with the government, vehicle registration, library card, WIC or Section Eight housing application is accompanied by shoving a voter registration card at the civilian, how many do you think believe that is just another form to fill out as part of the process?

The effect is actually anti-democratic. A recent example locally was the successful petition and vote allowing liquor sales in county precinct 4. That election cost almost $15 per “yea” vote. I'm not talking bribes or graveyard votes, most of the expense was in collecting the voter signatures required to get on the ballot. Since the proponents had to gather a set percentage of registered voters to get there, the artificial inflation of voter enrollment by people who never intended to actually vote raised the bar to be cleared in order to put the question before the voters. Once they achieved that, the vote itself was a slam-dunk, but the expense, not some principle, was the reason for limiting the measure to one precinct.

Another unintended effect of Motor Voter is to dilute the strength of younger voters. The 18-24 demographic has less interaction with the government, and fewer occasions to have that registration card shoved across the desk at them. Nationally, only 40% of that group of eligible voters is registered. In any given election, the cost per vote for that group is three times that of the over 40 group. Brand loyalty, be it beer or bath soap or political parties doesn't kick in until mid-thirties. Any advertiser of any product targets the available money at the most changeable audience.

The next time someone tells you the horror of the huge sums of money spent on political campaigns, reflect on this fact: in a given four year election cycle, 2.5 million candidates run for 511,000 elected offices nationwide. Still, more ad money is spent advertising breakfast cereal than all political campaigns put together.

There is good news. Measuring by absolute vote instead of percentage of registered voters, the number of voters is steadily increasing. The percentage commonly bemoaned as the Death of Democracy has its origins in an artificially tweaked baseline. In my two precinct combined polling place, I have seen a big boost in registered voters, but I see the same “give a hoot” voters every time. We have now almost 1,500 listed on our combination forms, but the highest actual turnout I've seen was the 2004 Presidential, with about 400 actual early/election day voters.

If a body is more inclined to go fishing than to read up on candidates, I have no quarrel with his choice of interests. I would suggest that such a person would be making more productive use of his time this Tuesday in a boat than at a ballot box. I would never suggest making it difficult for any voter to exercise the franchise, but neither will I expend any effort to motivate the politically uninformed voter.

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