Don’t Rock the Vote, Baby!
October 30, 2008
William J. Watkins Jr.
Voter registration drives have been ubiquitous this election cycle. These efforts, however, could have a pernicious effect on the country and Americans’ understanding of the duties of citizenship.
Consider the ‘Rock the Vote’ campaign. Begun in 1992, Rock the Vote “uses music, popular culture and new technologies to engage and incite young people to register and vote in every election.” If you visit the Rock the Vote website, DJ Diplo will e-mail you a copy of your state’s voter registration form. Bloggers rave about Diplo’s work at registration events, noting that his music is so loud that groupies “can still feel the dull throb of the speakers blasting full force” 24 hours later.
Not to be outdone by Diplo, Bothervoting.org offers prospective voters maps to the polling places and runs an aggressive advertising campaign. One of the ads features a blond bombshell salaciously whispering “I just can’t picture myself sleeping with a non-voter.” Not only can you help solve the country’s problems by voting, you might get lucky too.
With all the commotion about voter registration, one would think that barriers to registration abound. This is not the case. Since 1995, state governments have been required to provide uniform registration services through drivers’ license registration centers and government offices offering public assistance benefits. The states also must permit citizens to register using mail-in forms. Or they can choose the old fashioned way and go to the local voter registration office to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Participation in local, state, and national elections is not something Americans should take lightly. In our system of government, the people are recognized as the ultimate sovereigns and exercise their power in special conventions (such as the conventions that ratified the Constitution) or during elections when they vote for representatives, and, in some states, for various ballot initiatives. In 1776, the General Court of Massachusetts summed up popular sovereignty as follows: “It is a maxim, that, in every government, there must exist, somewhere, a supreme, sovereign, absolute, and uncontrollable power; But this power resides, always in the body of the people, and it never was, or can be delegated, to one man, or a few.” Thus, elections should be viewed as bulwarks of our Republic.
But for elections to serve this lofty purpose, the people must be informed. In recognition of this, the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, in part, to ensure the free flow and availability of information regarding public concerns. Because an informed electorate is a prerequisite to an intelligent exercise of the franchise, the Founding Fathers, in the words of James Madison, viewed the dissemination of information as “the only effectual guardian of every other right.” An ignorant public exercising the franchise was seen as inimical to a free society.
Today’s mass voter drives stand this notion on its head. Because it is already so easy to register without the aid of Rock the Vote or Bothervoting.org, one must wonder what sort of person the mass voter-registration drives are reaching. Obviously not people who take their citizenship seriously enough to register without the assistance of DJ Diplo or the enticement of a “party-on” atmosphere.
Although the First Amendment is still in place and information is readily available, an intellectual laziness has crept into much of society. Recent polls show that when asked to name two of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs and two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 77 percent of those polled were able to identify two dwarfs, while only 24 percent could name two Supreme Court Justices. Regarding the basic structure of our government, only 42 percent of Americans could name the three branches, whereas 73 percent could name all of the Three Stooges.
If Rock the Vote and Bothervoting really wanted to contribute to solving the problems facing our country, they would focus less on numbers and more on knowledge.
An ignorant voter is more dangerous to the Republic than a non-voter. Unfortunately, the registration movement teaches citizens that an uneducated vote is better than no vote at all. Such a lesson is pernicious and could have lasting effects on the electorate.
William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. and author of the Independent Institute book, Reclaiming the American Revolution.