Bohanon: Voting Is a Right but Being Informed Is a Duty

October 26, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

The other day, my wife and I received postcards from the local election board informing us of a change in the location of our polling place. We also received a card informing a previous resident of our house of the change — a resident who is no longer in the state.

If I were a devious political operative, I could persuade a sympathetic person of similar political persuasions and low ethics to vote falsely, assuming the identity of the former resident. This is why I think it is wise to require voters to show a picture ID when voting. This hardly seems an unreasonable requirement. Maybe you disagree, and that is all right; we can have a conversation about the issue later.

The point I want to make, however, is the one I make every election year: It is fine to encourage people to become informed and then vote, but there is no reason to encourage, cajole or shame the uninterested or uninformed to vote. It is silly to encourage people to vote just for the sake of voting. This issue is different from the specific rules that should or should not be enacted about voting. I raise this because a more left-leaning colleague of mine castigated me last election for this latter opinion – arguing it was a mere stealth version of the former one. Well, it’s not.

In a free society, the God-given natural rights of individuals are respected, and the state is established to protect those rights. But as many wise women and men have recognized, rights also come with duties. A free society requires citizens who are willing to make sacrifices to maintain freedom, and some of those sacrifices cannot possibly be attained by state coercion.

The government must coerce people to pay taxes under threat of prison time, but we really don’t want government to coerce people to participate in a park cleanup. (Note that is exactly what the government does in North Korea, perhaps the most unfree country in the world.) Yet I submit that the durability of our republic depends on the duties we as citizens voluntarily perform as much as those that are enforced by government threats.

We all have the right to vote, but this implies a duty to be informed about the issues and candidates for whom we vote. We should not vote for a candidate because he or she has a cute name, sex appeal or because our friends pressure us to do so. Why should this be considered controversial? Sure, the requirement to be thoughtful and informed can only be self-defined and self-enforced — but if you can’t justify to yourself why you are going to the voting booth, then don’t go.

Contrast this with standard political rhetoric: “You’ve got to grab your friends. You’ve got to grab your co-workers. You know, don’t just get the folks you know are going to vote. You’ve got to find Cousin Pookie, he’s sitting on the couch right now watching football, hasn’t voted in the last five elections; you’ve got to grab him, and tell him to go vote.”

The statement is from President Barack Obama, and I suspect he assumes Cousin Pookie will reliably vote for Democrats. I also suspect that John Boehner or John McCain would happily make the same statement — except refer to Cousin Billy Bob and assume he will reliably vote for Republicans. And I say unless you tell Billy Bob or Pookie to get informed, let them both stay on the couch.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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