Voting not enough to improve democracy alone

September 11, 2019 — by Brandon Wang

For many seniors, the 2020 general election will be their first opportunity to vote. Many are eager to exercise their voting rights in an era when politics has so much consequence.

Dozens of organizations are also trying to get more young people to the polls.

The problem is that perhaps not everyone should vote — ambitious voting registration programs risk giving power to swathes of easily misled, low-information voters.

Instead, voter-registration movements should refocus on long-term efforts to increase democratic engagement rather than increasing voting per se, a more effective method of ensuring consistently higher voter turnout and more informed voting.

For example, a recent Atlantic article by Alia Wong recounts how, in Florida, middle school civics classes led to greater student engagement with politics, and, to some degree, helped spur activist movements among Parkland students after the shooting there last year.

Similarly, educated voters anywhere will naturally gravitate toward involvement in the political sphere, whether that be volunteering in campaigns, doing research on candidates or voting.

Creating a large, more activated voter base will also lead more voters to feel as if they have a greater say in the political process, not just pawns in order to fulfill some arbitrary registration goal. Lessening disillusionment, in turn, bears other fruit in the form of a less tribalist and less angry populace.

On the other hand, producing legions of uninformed voters is not only irresponsible but also dangerous. In a 2011 study by MIT political scientists, uneducated voters, especially heavy television-watchers, tend to vote based on a candidate’s physical appearance alone. 

Voters who feel left out of a system and who feel betrayed are also more likely to protest vote and to try to destroy the system, rather than reform the system. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, a candidacy was filed for both “Deez Nuts” and the gorilla Harambe, who, despite being dead, nevertheless garnered 5 percent of the vote when pitted against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a Public Policy Polling poll. This problem is not new: It is articulated in Plato’s “Republic,” in which he points out that large groups of uninformed voters are susceptible to mob rule: in a quest to increase democracy, we risk manufacturing anarchy instead.

In an analysis of compulsory voting written for Vox, Chayenne Polimedio points out that “higher turnout doesn’t guarantee higher quality candidates or more responsiveness.”

The only sensible solution, then, is to encourage the populace to become more politically engaged. Voting activists should, instead of only registering citizens to vote, give them pamphlets instructing them about candidates and policy positions and demonstrating the effect government decisions have on them.

 Although this may not produce the same tangible results as completing a numerical goal, it will result in a healthier, more functional democracy in which citizens are not only enthusiastic voters, but lifelong ones as well.

For students and potential voters, their job neither begins nor ends in the ballot box. Instead, it happens outside, in being good citizens and realizing that they are not voting for voting’s sake but for their own.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.

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