by Howard Stephenson
Lt. Governor Olene Walker has launched an all-out effort to get people to the polls this week. She is joined, at least officially, by both major political parties in the campaign. They’re using the old fashioned appeal to our patriotism to convince more people to vote.
It’s really too bad. Get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns can be dangerous.
There are few things more threatening to good government than encouraging uninformed voters to enter the voting booth.
Someone once said that the biggest threats to liberty are ignorance and apathy. These twin demons threaten the very foundations of the freedoms that were won and preserved at such a high price throughout the history of this nation.
But to attack apathy by getting uninformed voters to turn out in larger numbers is risky.
It’s pretty easy to give citizens a guilt trip about not voting and it might even raise the turnout a few percentage points. But more thought and work are required to solve the ignorance problem. Getting citizens to study the voter information pamphlet, research the candidates’ positions on issues, and go to the polls armed with knowledge is a tremendous task.
It’s a lot easier to simply encourage them to vote in their ignorance.
I think voters ought to be required to swim a mile or climb a mountain or wrestle a bear before receiving a ballot. Or better yet, they should be required to actually know something about each candidate, and to have done more than count lawn signs or listen to the radio ads in deciding how to vote. Voters who show up without prodding tend to know more about what they’re doing inside the voting booth. These are the voters who, when they close the curtain, aren’t surprised by what’s on the ballot.
GOTV proponents are worried that this year may produce a turnout of less than 40%. Utah has always had one of the highest turnout rates in the country but since the federal “motor voter” law was implemented in 1994 to register voters when they get their driver’s licenses or when they sign up for unemployment, disability, or welfare benefits, Utah’s voter participation rate has declined. It’s not that fewer people are interested in voting, it’s just that there are more non-participating citizens who are actually registered. While it appears there is more apathy, there are simply more uninterested citizens now registered who were not historically registered to vote.
Before “motor voter” eight of ten Utah registered voters typically participated in presidential elections. Now, it’s about seven of ten. In non-presidential general elections six of ten registered voters used to turn out to the polls. That rate has now dropped to four and a half out of ten. Because Utah has no statewide races this year, forcasters are predicting a turnout rate of less than 40%.
Limits on Campaign Spending
It’s somewhat schizophrenic, but those who tend to support GOTV also support limits on campaign spending. Never mind that it takes money for candidates to communicate with the public. When you get that door hanger from a legislative candidate, it may seem a little thing to you, but to the candidate, the cost was probably $2,000 to cover the district. And for a simple mailer it’s in the neighborhood of $4,000. It’s really crazy that reformers want to turn out the uninformed voter but also limit the ability of candidates to communicate with voters, especially the uninformed ones.
We’ve heard a lot of complaints again this election cycle about “big” money and “soft” money in campaign financing. Most commentators complain about this group wielding too big an influence through their campaign contributions, or that group giving through the “back door” through institutional ads. Many of the people who fall for the arguments of limiting campaign contributions are the same people who complain that we know too little about the candidates and the issues on the ballot.
For legislative, school board and county races, many voters couldn’t tell you the first thing about the candidates. It seems to me that if we really want voters to know more about these candidates, we ought to be encouraging more money in politics, not less. We ought to be relaxing the campaign finance laws, not making them more restrictive.
When you boil it down, limits on campaign financing restrict those with the most popular ideas — those who enroll others into their political philosophy — to essentially campaign with one hand tied behind their backs. These limits also tend to enable those with less popular ideas to have a greater chance of success at the ballot box. What’s fair about that? To limit political speech by limiting political campaign spending is un-American.
Anyone who supports restricting campaign finances to make elections more “fair” ought to be willing to disclose how much they have personally given to candidates to overcome the unfairness or “big” or “soft” money. In most cases I suspect it will be very little or zero.
Let’s not fall for the “nanny state” mentality which seeks to limit campaign spending and pushes get-out-the-vote campaigns. This motivation to protect the people from themselves has no place in a free society.
by Howard Stephenson