Conscription, Disparate impact, Felony Disenfranshisement, Illegal immigrants, Jim Crow Laws, Privacy Rights, Suffrage, Universal Suffrage, Vietnam War, Voter ID Laws, Voting Age, Well-Informed Electorate
People aren’t required to know anything about issues or candidates to vote. While that might create challenges to the rationality of electoral outcomes, in the U.S. we’ve at least agreed that competent adults holding citizenship should have the opportunity to vote (with state-by-state exceptions for felons). Thus, over time, the nation has gravitated toward fairly broad suffrage rights, despite setbacks along the way created by Jim Crow laws in the South. Today, the voting rights debate centers around screening issues like voter identification laws, whether to allow undocumented immigrants to vote, and the voting age. The Left tends to oppose voter screening of almost any kind, prompting allegations that their motives are less than pure, and similar allegations are leveled at the Right for its resistance to expanded suffrage. What, then, are the merits of some of these screening mechanisms?
There are at least two sources of opposition to voter ID laws. One is a Libertarian argument: the very idea of government-issued IDs is anathema to some privacy rights activists. I sympathize with this view, but I’ve always been troubled by the resistance it represents to the establishment and maintenance of trust in a modern society. It might or might not be any consolation that these laws would almost certainly be administered at the state or local level. It’s also not clear that voter ID laws would lead to an increment in the various forms of government-issued identification. On its face, these laws would simply require the voter to produce a valid ID at their polling place confirming that they do, in fact, appear on the roll of registered voters, and that they are not attempting to vote under a fraudulent identity or acting as someone’s stooge.
The second and more common objection to voter ID laws comes from the Left: almost any limit on voting rights can and will be construed as unfairly exclusionary. The argument usually relies on the existence of a disparate impact of the kind described in civil rights legislation. Voter ID laws do not overtly discriminate against minorities, but they are said to place a burden on the disadvantaged and therefore on racial minorities. Presumably, it is considered too burdensome to obtain, carry, or be asked to present some form of identification, even one issued free-of-charge by the government. There is evidence, however, that voter ID laws do not suppress minority voting. And let’s be blunt: individuals excluded by this so-called burden are self-excluded, they are unlikely to be well-informed voters, and they might be vulnerable to opportunists who would pay for their vote. But instead, the public is asked to accept the proposition that obtaining an ID is just too difficult for some people, and to accept the risk that those arriving to vote on election day might not be registered, might have voted already, and might not be the persons they purport to be. These things happen. (Also see here and here.)
Reduce the Voting Age?
It’s impossible to define a measurable threshold above which people can be trusted to cast well-considered votes. Recently, there have been calls from the Left to reduce the voting age to 16 from 18 years. Then why not 14? Or even 12? Well, they’d say, because 12 or even 14 year-olds are not sufficiently mature.
So we all agree that a line must be drawn somewhere. Voting rights were extended to those aged 18-20 in 1971 in response to charges that it was unfair to deny the right to vote to young adults who were eligible for conscription to fight in Vietnam. The age-18 threshold aligns with the legal age of majority in most states. We know that the vast bulk of teenagers of 16 or 17 years are not well-prepared to fight in foreign wars, or to fend for themselves in the world for that matter. Right or wrong, at 18 you can volunteer for military service, get married, you are legally eligible as a sex partner, you can buy alcohol in many states, and you no longer qualify for child support.
Most adults would agree that there are substantial differences in the maturity of 16 and 18 year-olds. The latter are better-educated and will tend to have many times the job experience of 16 year-olds (which is often zero). Will 16 year-old children have a sufficient grasp of the issues they will confront in the voting booth? Most of these kids are still essentially hungry mouths, and it is unlikely that they can make well-informed judgements about the costs of pleasant-sounding public benefits versus the attendant costs. Some will vote exactly the way their parents and teachers tell them, but that sort of vote replication is hardly the desired outcome.
One can also view the voting-age debate through the lens of disparate impact: minority populations tend to have younger demographic profiles with more children per household. Therefore, keeping children out of the voting booth could have a larger impact on votes cast by minorities. But this effect is incidental to the choice of any line one might draw. It does not provide an adequate rationale for giving weight to the preferences held by a class of children.
Suffrage for Illegals?
Another proposal offered by the Left is to allow illegal immigrants to vote. It goes without saying that along with illegals, other resident aliens would get to vote. They are all subject to public policy, so the argument goes, and many of them actually pay taxes. Yes, well, many of them draw on public benefits as well. The statist bet is that suffrage for illegals will undergird support for expansion of the welfare state. That’s bad enough, but the risks are not limited to a fiscal imbalance between taxes paid and public aid. More important is to avoid policies that create rewards and incentives for additional illegal entry. Suffrage for illegals would heighten those incentives. It would also devalue U.S. citizenship and reward those who have already entered illegally, many of whom have little knowledge of our system of government
Eligibility to vote should not be a matter of political gamesmanship. Voter ID laws serve to thwart efforts intended to subvert democratic outcomes, which are common enough to be of concern. And voting is a privilege that should be reserved for citizens, not offered to mere visitors or anyone who has disregarded U.S. sovereignty by entering the country illegally, possibly seeking economic rents from our generous public aid programs.
Voter eligibility should also relate to the individual’s ability to evaluate public policy choices based on some degree of experience and knowledge of the world. As a rule of thumb, high school sophomores and juniors fail that test. If you think “the children are leading the conversation”, then you’re probably having the wrong conversation. But no matter what voting age we choose, there will always be voters having a tenuous grasp of issues. Fortunately, most of those lacking relevant knowledge of ballot issues tend not to care and choose not to vote. They are free to vote should they develop an interest, and so much the better.