Rational choice theory might help explain why James Madison thought a little chaos could be good for democracy.
Republicans proposing a sweeping slate of voting regulations in the states, and resisting a federal bill to loosen them, have a point. It is just not the one they think. Measured by the structure of these proposals and the rhetoric that accompanies them, the intention is apparently to keep elections competitive. That is not an intrinsic good. But preserving the indispensably public nature of voting is.
To see why competitive elections are not a good in themselves, it is necessary to overcome a strain of narcissism endemic to politics. Rather than the cynical claim that all politicians are narcissists—which is both untrue and cheap—the problem is professional narcissism: the inability to view events through a lens other than that of one’s chosen line of work. In its political variant, politicians see the world only through the eyes of politicians rather than from the perspective of voters.
From the perspective of voters, the purpose of elections is to register the deliberate will of the people. From the perspective of candidates, the purpose of elections is winning, which deceives them into seeing competitiveness as the essence of the game. According to the latter view, a “fair” election is one each candidate or party has a roughly equal chance of winning. But politics is neither beanbag nor fair, nor should it be either.
Competitive elections are intrinsic goods only to politicians who see their job as winning them and journalists to whom blowout wins and losses are boring. Elections should provide opportunities for reflection. But if the will of the people is settled in a given place or for a given interval, the purpose of elections is to register that fact, not to make life fair for candidates. There are solid red and blue states in which Democratic and Republican candidates, respectively, have little chance of winning. Viewed from the voter’s point of view, there is no inherent reason elections in these places should be made to be a coin flip.
For Democrats, this narcissistic drive for fairness takes the form of campaign-finance regulations that, seeing elections only from the perspective of office-seekers, seek to level the playing field between candidates while giving them more control over political speech. H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” would consequently clamp down on “dark money.” Yet “dark money” refers to a means of persuading voters. To the voter, what matters is whether the message is persuasive. Only the politician cares whether the result of persuasion advantages or disadvantages a given candidate.
Republicans are showing they are susceptible to professional narcissism too. Some of the voting reforms they have proposed in state legislatures doubtless make sense. But in the absence of hard evidence of fraud, many seem predicated on a two-step maneuver: claim fraud, then use belief in fraud as proof of the necessity of voting restrictions. It is difficult to shake the suspicion that these reforms, like Democrats’ obsession with campaign finance, arise from a narcissistic belief that elections would be uncompetitive without them. Then-President Trump told Fox News as much last year: At sufficiently high levels of voting, he said, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Like campaign finance reform for Democrats, restricting voting to make Republicans more electable is a narcotic that risks masking underlying pathologies. Both are the remedies of parties so convinced of their rectitude that only chicanery could explain a loss. Rather than railing against mysterious financial forces that were alleged to control Congress for six of the eight years President Obama occupied the White House, Democrats would have done better to moderate their policies and ask how they could be made more appealing.
Similarly, conservatives need to face facts: As of 2024, there will be eligible voters in whose lifetimes a Republican has never won a majority of the popular vote for president. Yes, that is partly an artifact of an Electoral College system that causes Democrats to run up garbage-time points in California. Perhaps—like the doctor who says his medicine only made the patient sicker because the dose was too low—the problem is the phantasm of Conservatism Inc. suffocating the authentic voice of populism. But despite these nefarious forces, one would think Republicans would have snuck one past the goalie sometime. A generation of losing the popular vote should induce candid reflection.
But so should the nature of voting, and here conservatives are on to something important. The Republican argument for voting reform has gone something like this: The pandemic required emergency expansions of absentee and mail voting, but to prevent fraud, they should be temporary. A better framework is that voting is an intrinsically public act. The person undertaking it should reflect on its consequences for the public good, not just for himself.
Consequently, voting should be accessible. Those who need absentee or mail ballots should get them. But those who can go to a polling place should be required to engage in the civic symbol of casting a ballot in a public setting. If convenience is the only criterion for voting, we should not be surprised if people vote selfishly. If the number of ballots cast is the measure of a successful election—a premise reflected in the incessant do-gooder reminders that, no matter for whom or why, everyone should vote—we should not be surprised if what should be serious business is undertaken casually instead.
Neither should be the case. Voting should require effort—not unreasonable or prohibitive effort, and not effort that is deliberately intensified for some groups and not for others, but effort that reflects the civic significance of the act. A person who must go out of his or her way to vote is likelier to pause for reflection. A voter who stands in line with his or her fellow citizens at a polling place is likelier to keep their needs—and, more important, the common good—in mind.
It is true that ballots are, and ought to be, secret. But that is so voters can make an honest judgment, free from intimidation, as to the public good, not so they can retreat into themselves. In the ordinary case, secret ballots should be cast in public settings. Not everyone can do so. There are service members who must vote from a distance and people with medical conditions for whom voting by mail is safer. They should be accommodated. It does not detract from that need or stigmatize these unique situations to say the normal condition for voting should be public.
Voting reform thus presents Republicans with an opening to talk about the public good. When a majority of House Democrats seek to lower the voting age to 16—an age of notorious impulsivity and susceptibility to pressure, to say nothing of the propagandizing that occurs in public education—they are not simply trying to rack up voters for themselves. They are trivializing the fundamental civic act by divorcing it from both maturity and independence. When they seek to make it as convenient as possible to vote, regardless of personal need for accommodation, they are privatizing a fundamentally public activity.
For conservatives to make this argument—voting is a public act that should require a reasonable degree of effort and publicity—they must entertain accommodations some have been reluctant to make. There should be enough polling places, with enough staffing, to avoid gratuitously long waits, especially when waits are unevenly distributed. There is also a better case than conservatives have generally acknowledged for making Election Day a national holiday or moving elections to a holiday that already exists. That would enhance the case for voting requiring public effort.
Recently, Republican state Rep. John Kavanagh of Arizona was derided for saying the quiet part out loud when he declared that “everybody shouldn’t be voting.” The quality, not just quantity, of voting matters, he added. That was the important part out loud. It becomes sinister if elected officials like Kavanagh attempt to elevate “quality” voters and impede others on the basis of their partisan or personal judgment. But voting regulations should encourage both personal reflection and public action. That—the indispensably public nature of the fundamental civic act—and not professional narcissism is the prism through which conservatives should view voting reform.