The following is an excerpt from the new book The Great Suppression by Zachary Roth (Crown Publishers, 2016):
Conservatives just don’t think about voting the way most other Americans do. Liberals, even at the Founding, have seen voting straightforwardly as a right and as our foremost guarantee of equality. Central to this idea is the need to represent everyone’s interests. Most people don’t really believe that elections have a right answer. Instead, we think different candidates will benefit different groups of voters, and that most people can figure out which candidate is on their side: parents of young children might support a candidate who promises to invest in education, seniors might prefer the one who promises to protect Social Security, and so on. More people participating means more interests are represented, which leads to a more legitimate result and a stronger democracy.
But as the election law scholar Rick Hasen has written, many conservatives have never really bought into that way of thinking. To them, voting is much more instrumental, with the goal of making a sensible collective choice that will produce effective government and promote the common good. That’s how the eighteenth-century New Englanders who gathered on village greens to vote in public conceived of what they were doing. And that means an informed, independent electorate is crucial. After all, how else can voters be expected to choose wisely? It’s not hard to see how, under this logic, reducing the number of uninformed voters—or less motivated voters, or voters with less of a long-term stake in their community—isn’t antidemocratic, it’s civic-minded.
Indeed, many conservatives explicitly reject the idea that everyone should be encouraged to vote. For much of the twentieth century, this skepticism about universal suffrage went mostly underground, as one group after another used the language of rights and equality to gain the franchise. But it never entirely went away. And in recent years it’s begun to be voiced again.
Some on the right simply reject the notion that more people voting is in itself a sign of civic health. To George Will, the Washington Post’s influential conservative columnist, low turnout is a sign that everything’s running smoothly. When people don’t vote, it’s because “the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections,” Will wrote in 2012, perhaps not defining, say, access to health insurance as essential to happiness. Will Wilkinson, a respected libertarian writer formerly with the Cato Institute, argues that low turnout isn’t just a sign of civic health, it’s a cause of it. “Lower turnout sets the stage for better democracy,” he has written, since “the flakiest voters—the ones least motivated to show up at the polls year in and year out—also tend to be most poorly informed.”
From this mind-set, it’s only a short leap to worrying more openly about the problem of low-quality voters. Perhaps we can’t stop them from voting if they’re determined to do so, goes the thinking, but we certainly shouldn’t be encouraging it. And if the election process puts up barriers that keep these people away, so much the better. “The need to register to vote is just about the most modest restriction on ballot access I can think of, which is why it works so well as a democratic filter,” National Review’s Daniel Foster wrote in 2015. “It improves democratic hygiene because the people who can’t be bothered to register . . . are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots.” Or here’s George Will again, in 2010: “A small voting requirement such as registration, which calls for the individual voter’s initiative, acts to filter potential voters with the weakest motivations. They are apt to invest minimal effort in civic competence.”
A few prominent conservatives are willing to follow Ted Yoho to the final step: disenfranchisement. Representative Steve King of Iowa, one of Congress’s most influential right-wingers, seemed to go there as he wrung his hands about government spending at a 2011 hearing. “There was a time in American history when you had to be a male property owner in order to vote,” King said, anticipating Yoho. The idea, King continued, was that voters should “have some skin in the game.” The problem today, he went on, is that too many voters don’t pay taxes, and so “when they vote, they vote for more government benefits.” A 2014 Fox News segment was blunter, asking: “Is it time to revisit a test for people to be able to vote?” Minutes later Ann Coulter got to the point: “I just think it should be a little more difficult to vote. There’s nothing unconstitutional about literacy tests.” Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review and an influential pundit on the right, has proposed making wouldâ€‘be voters take the same test given to those applying for citizenship. “Voting should be harder, not easier,” he has written elsewhere. And Glenn Reynolds, a conservative law professor and popular blogger, responded to the antiracism protests that swept college campuses in 2015 by arguing for raising the voting age to twenty-five.
Versions of this thinking are in vogue even among more scholarly types. In his 2011 book, The Ethics of Voting, the libertarian law professor Jason Brennan compared uninformed voters to drunk drivers. “I’ve actually become more sympathetic to the idea that maybe people should be formally excluded from voting,” Brennan told an interviewer.
It’s easy to see this kind of rhetoric as a knee-jerk reaction to demographic trends that favor progressives. But it also represents the reemergence of a deeply rooted conservative fear—something close to an ideology—that giving full voting rights to the masses will dangerously destabilize society and usher in radical change. Throughout U.S. history, that fear has frequently acted to slow and even reverse the march of greater political equality—just as it’s doing today.
Reprinted from THE GREAT SUPPRESSION. Copyright © 2016 by Zachary Roth. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC