Barack Obama has a well-earned reputation for intelligence. He's a very smart guy — so smart, in fact, that he sometimes comes off as a little too cerebral for his own good. If you admire professors and their tendency toward an above-it-all air of knowingness and instinct for complexification, then Obama's your man. But if you consider them self-important windbags dangerously lacking in common sense, then you probably can't stand him.
I usually belong in the first group, though even I sometimes find the president's overly aloof professor-in-chief routine a little much.
But news that he favors mandatory voting has forced me to reconsider. When the story broke about his off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall in Cleveland last Wednesday, my first thought was to wonder if Obama is really as bright as I've always presumed him to be.
Watch the president's muddled remarks for yourself. This is what I take him to be saying:
The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision decimated the country's campaign-finance regulations, enabling wealthy individuals, businesses, and special-interest groups to flood the political system with money in an effort to secure a degree of influence far in excess of what most Americans enjoy. This has skewed the political system to the right. If voting were compulsory, as it already is in more than two dozen countries around the world, we might begin to push back against this influence and compensate for the rightward drift of our politics, since those who currently under-participate (the young, the poor, the working class, recent immigrants, and members of minority groups) all lean to the left.
That's the president's case.
Now, as I've argued before, I think most liberal laments about the baleful effects of Citizens United are overstated. As the notorious Koch brothers learned in 2012, it's possible to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to influence the outcome of an election and still have little measurable impact. Then there's the fact that Democrats have their own billionaire supporters, leading the increase in campaign spending to end up an ideological wash.
But even if you assume that the high court has empowered the wealthy to enact a unified, class-based ideological agenda, Obama's proposal for pushing back against it is unlikely to work — and just might make things worse.
To begin with the most obvious point, if it's true that money enables the wealthy to influence how people vote, then it's unclear how adding numbers to the voter rolls will make a difference. Won't those new voters be just as manipulable as the voters we already have? Might they not actually be even more manipulable, since they're most likely less informed than people who were already voting without a threat of fine or prosecution?
And there we hit on the most powerful reason to oppose mandatory voting.
No, not because it's a violation of individual freedom (though it is) — but because we have reason to believe we're better off when people who can't be bothered vote stay home.
A democracy gives every adult citizen a very small say in who rules. An individual doesn't have to prove that he's thoughtful or informed to exercise that right. As Plato argued 2,300 years ago, this makes democratic politics exceedingly peculiar. We don't take a vote to determine the medical treatments that doctors prescribe, and neither do we ask for a show of hands about how to construct a bridge or a building. And yet we think it's perfectly reasonable to ask for everyone's opinion about what policies our country should pursue at home and abroad.
That's because in politics, unlike in medicine and engineering, the act of determining who does and does not possess knowledge and wisdom is exceedingly contentious. (One might say it's a political act in itself.) So we solve — or rather, we sidestep — the problem by letting everyone have a say.
But of course, giving everyone a voice in periodic elections isn't purely democratic. An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot, with leaders chosen at random from the citizenry. Elections, by contrast, presume that some people (those few who make it onto the ballot) are more fit to rule than everyone else. All that's presumed about the voters at large is that they're capable of recognizing civic excellence when they see it.
But even this presumption is partly a fiction. We all know that some people are more capable than others of recognizing excellence, even if we also recognize, once again, that there's no uncontentious way to definitively determine who the more capable people are. The closest we can get to making such a determination may be using the decision to vote as a proxy for relative political wisdom.
If you can't be bothered to vote, you probably aren't paying attention; and if you aren't paying attention, we'll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering.
The president says he wants to make it easier for people to vote. Fine. He could work to lengthen the hours the polls are open, extend voting over multiple days, or move Election Day to a weekend. All would be perfectly unobjectionable and even worthwhile reforms.
But even if polling places were open around the clock for a month, some people would still fail to vote. Those aren't people we should want to have a say.
Compulsory voting won't produce smarter policies — or smarter presidents.