In 2004, P. Diddy gave America an ultimatum. Undoubtedly distraught over growing political apathy among youth, he proclaimed in a fit of rage:
“Vote or die!”
Last week, nearly 90 percent of Dane County residents chose death. P. Diddy’s “Rock the Vote” campaign may not have been talking about Dane County judicial primaries, but most people agree voter turnout numbers – even in presidential elections – are much lower than they should be. And who can blame people for thinking that? We’re all encouraged to be good citizens, and most people’s definition of being a good citizen includes voting.
But we’re missing a key part of the puzzle here. Mere voting is not what makes democracy successful. Increasing voter turnout in and of itself is not a good thing unless people are making informed decisions. For democracy to live up to its potential, votes must be supported by a sober, thoughtful evaluation of reality.
In a 2011 poll done by Pew Research Center, only about three out of 10 Americans knew that the government spent more on Medicare than on things like scientific research or education. When most people don’t have correct beliefs about their own government, perhaps turnout is actually too high.
I don’t know about you, but if someone is going to be making an important decision that affects my life, they better be damn sure they did their research. Why should we expect different from voters?
Another example: I came to the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2008 with wide-eyed idealism, eager to get involved in the whirlwind of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for president. Naturally, I was drawn to College Democrats and attended a rally. But I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t for me. Sure, the personality cult atmosphere filled with inane chants was rather off-putting (I half expected a Two Minutes Hate of John McCain). But what drew the final straw for me was an email informing members that “voting down the ballot” (i.e. voting a straight party ticket of all Democrats) would be the topic of the next meeting. I supported Obama, but I wasn’t about to just check the “D” box and call it good without even thinking about who the candidates were. I wasn’t willing to be part of an organization that advocated blind loyalty over reasoned deliberation.
Clearly, College Democrats can’t be blamed for advocating what’s in their best interest. I’m sure College Republicans would do the same. That’s just the role parties play. But we do a disservice to each other if we take elections so lightly that we merely look for “Ds” and “Rs” and call it good. It might be slightly better than not being informed at all, but not by much.
I want to believe get-out-the-vote advocacy groups are genuinely interested in increasing the quality of our debate and decreasing voter ignorance. The political realist in me says otherwise. The fact is college students (especially here) vote overwhelmingly liberal, so those who stand to gain the most from getting out the youth vote are Democrats. But regardless of the role these types of groups play, it is certainly arguable that they mobilize people who would not otherwise get involved in politics. Being a civically minded individual is certainly something to strive for, but merely being mobilized is insufficient. We need to question our beliefs and think about issues from multiple angles for democracy to be everything it can.
Relax, folks. I’m not calling for some sort of arbitration panel that decides whether or not individuals are sufficiently informed enough to vote, and I certainly don’t want to return to things like literacy tests. Instead, people should just ask themselves before they vote: Am I really making an informed decision here?
The bottom line: If you don’t know, don’t vote. Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.
Zach Butzler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.