Article — From the November 1955 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Three years ago anyone who failed to vote had to face the combined scorn of both political parties, the schoolteachers, boy scouts, war veterans, chambers of commerce, and leagues of women voters. Last year bar associations, girl scouts, tavern keepers, President Eisenhower, radio and TV stations, and junior chambers of commerce joined the crusade. There is every prospect that in future elections, non-voters will face jail sentences or fines, or be called to testify before investigating committees.
Before this happens, someone should come to their defense. Non-voters are often more intelligent, more fair-minded, and just as loyal as voters. The right not to vote is as basic as the right to. If voting is made a duty, it ceases to be a privilege.
Let’s look at the voting behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Whipcord and Mrs. Whipcord’s brother Harold, on the day of the local school-board election. Mrs. Whipcord says, “I have studied the candidates and have made up my mind. I will vote for Jones.” Mr. Whipcord says, “I know nothing about the candidates or the issues. I will stay home, and allow the election to be decided by the votes of those who have made a study and formed an opinion.” Harold says, “I don’t know anything about the candidates or the problems, but by golly, I’m going to vote. It’s my duty. I’ll pick the fellows with the shortest names.”
If there is a bad citizen among these three, which one is it? Whose procedure is least likely to bring good government to the school district? Non-voting, multiplied by the thousands, is said to mean voter apathy, and this is supposed to be a sin. Have we lost our sacred American right to be apathetic? Suppose Mr. Whipcord studied the candidates carefully and concluded that Candidate Jones was a boob and Candidate Smith was a thief. Is it un-American to refuse to choose between them? Or suppose he is satisfied that Jones and Smith are equally qualified, equally able, and that the school’s problems are in good hands no matter which man wins. He is not apathetic; he is satisfied. Why should he be forced to choose between candidates on some esoteric basis?
The notion that “getting out the vote” makes for better election results is neither non-partisan, patriotic, nor logical. It is a device to favor the machines of both parties. It handicaps independent candidates, unfairly burdens the party in power, makes elections more expensive to conduct, greatly slows the tallying, and–worst of all–places the emphasis on the ritual of voting rather than the thought behind the vote.
If you fill in all the blank spaces on the ballot, the political machines will steal three-fourths of your vote. Let’s see how this works, in a typical primary election.
Here are seven offices to be filled by nomination, with two or three candidates for each office. Citizen Stringfellow is interested in seeing Jones win for Auditor. He has no information about the candidates for Attorney General, Treasurer, Superintendent of Schools, or the others. He votes for Jones and then looks on down the list. He has been persuaded that it is his duty to vote for somebody for each office.
So for six of the seven offices, he marks an X opposite the name best known to him, or the name an top, or the name suggested by his committeeman. These are machine candidates, and Citizen Stringfellow has given away six-sevenths of his vote.
After him, comes Citizen Stalwart, who knows the candidates for two of the seven offices. He also fills in all the blanks, letting the machine steal five-sevenths of his vote. One of his blind votes cancels out the intelligent vote cast by Citizen Stringfellow. At this rate, during a day’s balloting, the candidates backed by the strongest machines with the biggest publicity budgets will win, even though not a single voter had an intelligent preference for them.
Is this what Thomas Jefferson had in mind? “Getting out the vote” is always partisan. A calm and dignified effort benefits the party in power. An excited or hysterical effort benefits the party out of power. The Republicans were very happy to use the pressure of “neutral” groups in the 1952 elections. But they had better learn that this is a two-edged sword. Next time, the girl scouts, veterans’ groups, radio stations, newspapers, and community funds may be out needling the Republicans with propaganda.
“Vote this time or your vote may be gone forever.” “This may be your last chance.” “Vote now or never.” Anyone who is led to the polls by such arguments is going to vote against whoever brought us to the edge of this crevasse. As the pressure on the public increases, the party out of power is most likely to benefit in direct proportion to it.
All public-opinion surveys show that a certain proportion of the electorate has no opinion about many vital issues, does not know who is running for office, and does not care. A gentle campaign to bring a submissive one-third of the apathetic sheep to the polls gets out a voting majority for the candidates who have had the greatest amount of publicity–who usually belong to the party in power. A rip-snorting effort to get out all the ignoramuses tends to turn them into the rebel column, and thus benefits the outs.
In either event, the girl scouts should wash their hands of it. The job of getting out the vote is a partisan effort which belongs to the professionals.
More from Robert Coulson: