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You Can't Shame Me Into Voting

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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“Who you vote for is your secret, but whether you vote is public record.” This was the creepy message on the postcard we received just days before Tuesday’s election from the illiberal authoritarians who call themselves America Votes. Similar cards, as press reports have noted, were sent to voters in lots of battleground states, and included, as ours did, a printout of the recipient's voting record in recent years -- that is, whether we’d voted or not -- and a comparison with “neighborhood” voting patterns. The project has a Saddam-esque feel to it, and serves as a reminder about how poorly the right to vote is understood, and how fragile are the norms that protect it.

An editorial in the Hartford Courant called the America Votes report cards “an abuse of power,” adding that “voters might well assume they are under Orwellian surveillance.” If this keeps up, the editorial contends, some residents might decide not to vote rather than to put up with this intrusion. There might also be pressure, the Courant said, to make the lists of who voted and who didn’t confidential, which actually strikes me as a pretty good idea.

But America Votes -- along with several other organizations that do similar work -- doesn’t care about such niceties as privacy or the right of individuals to make up their own minds. America Votes, which has been up to this same mischief before, prefers to make up our minds for us. Its tactics build on academic studies suggesting that worry about the opinions of one’s neighbors may actually provide a strong incentive to vote.

But why is such social pressure a good thing? Despite clever arguments to the contrary, the right to vote also subsumes a right not to vote. To call voting a responsibility of citizenship, as many do, is at best imprecise. Participation in governance might be said to be obligatory, but voting is only one form of participation, perhaps not the most important one. Democracy at its best rests on a thoughtful, reflective dialogue among the citizenry. It’s the dialogue, not the vote, that matters most. In an ideal democracy, voting isn’t a measure of participation at all -- it’s the outcome of participation. If before we vote we skip all the dialogue in favor of gorging ourselves on partisan screeds about the awful crimes of those who disagree with us, we are already a long way from serious democracy.

One might argue that voting represents a shared sense of responsibility for the working of the democratic process itself. This is what Anthony Downs had in mind when he wrote in “An Economic Theory of Democracy” that “the return from voting per se is not the same thing as the return from voting correctly.” In this vision, the obligation to vote is entirely unrelated to the desire to win. By voting, we help preserve democracy -- even if the other side prevails.

But organizations like America Votes have nothing so abstract in mind. They don’t seem to think everyone should vote. They think those likely to support the causes they like should vote. The website of America Votes boasts of the group’s expertise with using “a robust range of data and targeting tools” in order “to advance progressive policies.”

Well, America Votes is entitled to its opinion. I’m also entitled to mine. And I’m with the critics. Trying to shame people into voting isn’t just creepy -- it’s wrong. It seeks to deny the individual the basic liberal freedom to choose his or her own version of the good life. Worse, the activity it seeks to coerce is involvement in electoral politics -- easily one of the sleaziest and most degrading aspects of modern American life.

According to the Pew Research Center, many fewer voters reported receiving robo-calls this time around than in the 2010 off-year election, and printed mailers, too, were down. Instead, this year’s money went into television advertising, with a record $2.4 billion spent on what is, basically, an organized effort by all sides to treat voters like idiots. Connecticut, where my wife and I live, had the highest percentage of negative ads of any gubernatorial race in the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of voters who wished both sides would lose.

The ubiquity of the negative campaign is an important reason to protect and even respect the decision of a citizen not to vote. It is neither irrational nor contrary to the civic spirit to refuse to participate in a project of such unmitigated viciousness. It’s the politicians and their wicked familiars, the campaign consultants, who have abandoned any pretense of belief in serious dialogue. Voters who refuse to reward candidates for reducing politics to sloganeering and trash-talk aren’t the ones who have something to be ashamed of.

Thus pressure to vote is simply wrong. It’s wrong for the same reason that compulsory voting laws would be wrong. In his 2011 book “Rethinking American Electoral Democracy,” the political scientist Matthew J. Streb argues that we should not require voting in the absence of empirical evidence that such pressure would make people “more engaged and informed.” We must find ways instead “to increase the benefits citizens see in voting.”

Precisely. Voters who stay away -- or who feel driven away -- are skeptical about the benefits. Put otherwise, the cost of voting might be too high for them to stomach. I don’t mean the cost in resources of getting to the polls. I mean the cost involved in rewarding a political class that, in its campaigns, has largely forgotten that a high road ever existed. If groups like America Votes want more people to come to the polls, they might try to do something about the real problem.

But that isn’t who they are.

Our America Votes postcard concludes with a silky threat: “In the future, we hope to send you an updated Voter Report Card before each election.” In other words, shape up, or everybody will know.

Well, I have a better idea. I promise, guys: As long as you keep sending out your creepy anti-democratic postcards, I will never cast a vote for or contribute a penny to any candidate unwilling to condemn your tactics. If that means I have to stay home on Election Day, well, there are a lot of good books waiting to be read.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at