About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Voting, my first time...

This morning I marched into the voting booth for the first time ever. In this country, that is. When I was younger and living in Italy I voted, but it took me 15 years of (legal) residence in the US to finally decide that I was here to stay, and might as well become a citizen and regain the right to vote.

Actually, what initially gave me the impetus to apply for citizenship was a move by the so-called New Gingrich Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives back in 1994 with their "contract with America." One of the little-known things they did was to propose legislature that took away Social Security benefits from legal residents (who, however, would still have to pay SS taxes). Asked on National Public Radio if this wasn't a bit unfair and an easy shot against people who had no right to vote and therefore were an easy target, the proponent of the bill replied to the effect that "they always have the option to become citizens." Indeed, we do, buster, and I did become a citizen, and it was with immense pleasure that this morning I voted across the board against the party that formulated that legislation a decade ago.

(Side note: when I visited Boston I saw the ship that started the American revolution against the British. The revolutionary battle cry is written there in capital letters: “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION!” Hmm, for some time when I was living in Knoxville, TN, I considered the possibility of organizing a rally of legal residents – who pay taxes but ain't represented – and have a Tennessee River grits party analogous to the famous Boston tea party. I should have done it before moving to New York, it will be one of the few regrets of my life.)

Anyway, all this voting talk has crystallized in my mind one more reason why this country isn't exactly the self-professed "best democracy" in the world (though it may very well be the best democracy that money can buy). It seems clear that the US system is built around the idea of discouraging the vote as much as legally possible. Consider the following: first of all, in most civilized countries elections are held over two days, and they are held during the weekend or on a holiday. In the US it is one day, and it's a workday, so that people have to jump through extra hoops to exercise their right to vote. Guess who is least likely to take time off for voting? But of course, minorities and the poor, i.e. the constituencies that often vote for progressive change.

Second, in most Western countries people are automatically registered to vote as soon as they turn 18; in the US, instead, one has to take the initiative and actually register. While the process isn't difficult (I just went through it), it is a truism of human psychology that one easy way to discourage someone from doing something is to put the burden of action on the subject (and please, don't give me crap about "if they don't even bother to register why should they vote," ok?). Finally, it is very difficult to find basic information about voting. For example, this being my first time, I didn't know at what time polling stations would open and close, something I needed to know in order to plan on voting before going to work, during a break, or after work. It took me a long time of searching the Net to find out that little bit of information, which wasn't prominently displayed (as one might reasonably expect) on either local newspaper or government websites!

Finally, and I'm sure the faithful reader knew this was coming, it's mostly the Republicans' fault. Yes, this is one of my "inflammatory" statements (a synonym for unpleasant truth, in some circles), but hear me out first. Which party has been consistently against legislative initiatives -- such as the so-called "motor-voter" registration (which makes it possible for people to register when they get a driver license) -- that facilitate the goal of universal access to voting? Which party has consistently attempted to disenfranchise minorities and the poor, for example by automatically exclude from the voting rolls in Florida anybody whose name was the same as that of a convicted felon, and then removing them only if the interested person actually filed a request with the State? You guessed it: the Republicans! And they say I'm paranoid...


  1. MP states: " (and please, don't give me crap about "if they don't even bother to register why should they vote," ok?)."

    So just out of hand you dismiss one of the best criticisms of your point. No, I don't think that's "ok".
    Lots of things in this country should be more difficult including getting a driver's license AND voting. Letting dumb people vote is how we got an idiot for a president in the first place. Letting more ignorant and/or lazy people vote isn't going to help.
    Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    Albert Einstein

  2. I have to agree with the above comment.

    I'm not troubled by needing to register to vote -- it weeds out those whose opinions are not well informed.

    I guess the question of what constitutes a democracy is subjective. Is it quantity of voter participation or quality?

    How do you think the Republicans won the White House? They signed up more new voters - not necessarily informed voters or voters willing to apply critical thought to the issues (obviously).

    I would also have to disagree that minorities/poor as a matter of philosophy vote for more progressive causes. They vote like most everyone else - to whatever appeals to their self interest (some times to the detriment of their long term self interests - again as all voters do).

    Do you have statistics that show that majority of African Americans, Latinos or people living below the poverty line support allowing homosexuals to marry, for example?

    If a vote came before the public to remove the words "God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, do you foresee a majority of those minority/poor groups supporting it?

    I'm guessing that poor farmers don't give a damn about saving an endangered species if it means they can't farm their land.

    It just so happens that many progressive causes are wrapped (sometimes arbitrarily) into the same Party that has traditionally carried the poor. Don't underestimate the effect of identity politics. I remember seeing a minority Service Woman interviewed prior to last year's Presidential election. She said she believed George Bush was the better man to win the war on terror and that he had better morals than Kerry. When asked who she was voting for, she said (paraphrasing from memory): "Kerry... My family always votes for the Democrats.. I can't help it, that's the way I was raised."

    Of course, if the Republicans keep spending big money on entitlement programs, then the Democrats may not even be able to count on that vote anymore :)

  3. Also, I once considered an opportunity that would have allowed me to work in Italy for a year or two.

    I know for a fact I was going to get taxed. And I'm pretty sure they wouldn't let me vote.

    The Taxation without Representation angle is a bit misleading. When applied by the colonists they were British citizens/subjects who were being taxed without parliamentary representation.

    I can't think of a single nation that would a) not tax the wages on foreign workers b) allow those same non-citizen foreign workers the right to vote.

    But I didn't research that, so please correct me if I am wrong.

    Oh, and congratulations on your first vote!

  4. So I missed the point where you emphasized "legal" residents (vs. foreign workers).

    Not sure how that effects my arguement. Feel free to set the record straight.


  5. Guys, guys,

    I'm sorry, but I think you missed an important point and are dead wrong on a couple of others (just my opinion, of course :)

    The missed point is that the legislation on social security for legal residents doesn't simply say that it is ok to tax non-citizens -- that has always been done, in many countries (although it did start the American revolution). But social security payments aren't supposed to be a tax, they are a downpayment on an entitlement. The Republicans are forcing residents to pay for a benefit that they will not get, unlike other people living in this country. In other words, they have turned the SS payment into a residency tax. Not fair.

    Second, there is plenty of evidence that poors and minorities tend to vote Democratic. True, this is changing to some extent, but the basic picture hasn't been altered for decades.

    Finally, no I don't think people should be forced to go the extra step to obtain something (like a driver's license, or voting) that is an entitelment in a democratic society. We try to make everything as easy as possible for people in this country, down to paying bills automatically without having to write a check. Why on earth would we go out of our way to exclude as many people as possible from voting? Should we reinstate the property criterion for being allowed to vote too?? After all, it is well known (in Republicanm circles) that the only reason people are poor is because they are lazy...

  6. This looks like a good time for a question for all.

    If it were up to you, what requirements (if any) would you place on a person before he or she had the right to vote?

    Please include such things as age, criminal record, education, etc.

    Thought experiment folks, it should be fun.


  7. Massimo,

    I'm not questioning that minority groups and the poor are more likel to vote Democratic. I agree there is plenty of evidence for that. But you original post said that they "often vote for progressive change".

    My point was simply that that probably was an over-statement. Voting Democratic by tradition or because of self-interested benefits is not the same as ascribing a greater level of progressive thinking to that group versus the opposite group, i.e. non-minority non-poor people.

    My guess is that in either group, the majority votes out of self-interest (each wanting something from the government, i.e. less taxes or more benefits) and probably neither group supports "progressive" social issues as a rule.

  8. Noah,

    I wouldn't put any restrictions other than age. I probably wouldn't let criminals vote while they were in prison, but that right should be restored when they are returned to society.

    In an ideal (cynical?) world, I would like to impose some test to make sure they understood the issues, but aside from being impossible to adminster fairly, I think it goes against the true spirit of democracy.

    However, I don't always agree with the MTV get out the vote campaigns. It would be great if every citizen were motivated enough to get educated and get involved. But just going out to vote blindly is not doing your civic duty.

    I think the ad campaigns should urge kids to learn about the issues, but not just to get out and vote.

    I work hard to understand the issues and make an intelligent nuanced decision. I hate to have an unthinking somebody cast a vote agaisnt mine because a pop star, church leader or an uniformed friend simply told him to do so.

    With regards to the testing comment above: there is a difference between not even trying to learn about the issues and not being intelligent enough to understand the issues (but tries). I really don't want the former voting, but the latter has every right to vote how he feels. Its a subtle, but important difference.

  9. For us, non-americans, do you register just once, or for every single election?

    As a side note, here in the Netherlands certain legal residents CAN vote for city counsel elections.


    PS: As a non-citizen, but legal resident, I didn't get the Bush tax return in 2000, either. :-(

  10. Alan said "How do you think the Republicans won the White House? They signed up more new voters "

    Sorry, but report after report says that Kerry had more voters voting for him in Ohio than Bush. Even more so than Gore in Florida. In the last few days, even the GAO points out loads of problems in Ohio. Also Kerry probably won more votes in Florida.

    Also questionable that Repubs registered more new voters. Have seen reports that Dems registered more new voters.

    So Kerry lost because of vote fraud and people being kept from voting in Ohio AND that he threw in the towel too soon.

    You can call this a Theory, yet its getting in range of Evolution for reliability.

  11. Not to get too much off on a tangent, but I wanted to share a little story that may be in the spirit of informing pontential voters about the issues.

    I was at a concert last Fall (the Rock Against Bush show in fact) where people were registering people to vote. This was about 20 or so days from election day, when it is too late to vote in the upcoming election if your not already registered.

    Anyway, one guy says to a registrar, "Isn't it too late to register people for the election," to which the registrar says something weak like, "Well, there are other elections."

    Alot of people feel like they're vote doesn't count, I think, because it probobly doesn't in the big national elections. But the national level takes it's cue from whats going on on the state and local level, where voter turn out is usually pretty abysmal.

    I think those of us interested in informing potential voters might want to think about starting with the issues that most directly affect their lives. Usually that means school boards, city councils, voter referendums and other elections on the local level where one vote can absolutly make a difference.

    Anyway, just thought I'd share that.


  12. GB,

    You only have to register once. I'm pretty sure that is nation wide, but some states do have different laws concerning registration.


  13. die anyway - where is the logical endpoint in the race to make it harder to: vote, get a drivers licence, etc? Perhaps we could go back to the original qualifiers; free white male landowners. Be careful, you approacheth a real slippery slope.

  14. re: " you approacheth a real slippery slope."

    True but anything taken to reductio ad absurdum levels can be seen as a slippery slope. What we need in that case are guard rails. The fables of 'the grasshopper and the ant' and of 'the little red hen' just keep coming to mind. I have worked long and hard, I have scrimped and saved, I have given up leisure to become educated. I resent the government taking my earnings and redistributing them to those who have done none of those things. When it then comes to voting for the government that is going to run this country, I think those who have proven that they have a modicum of intelligence, a bit of ambition and a vested (and I do mean vested) interest in the economy are the ones who get to vote. The leeches get to suck hind tit, so to speak. And it has nothing to do with being poor. I've been poor, once when I was in the military (which didn't pay worth a damn in 1970) and once when I quit work to go back to college. In either case I could prove I was doing something useful for my country, something to better myself, something to improve my community. My father used to tell me, "my advice is worth exactly what you're paying for it" (ie. nothing). In this case, one might say "voting is worth what you pay for it." If you give it away free to everybody its value is diminished. The future of this country is too important for all of us to put it in the hands of slackers, leeches, ne'er-do-wells, the uneducated and the uneducable. Life's tough ain't it?

  15. The attitude government takes toward encouraging people to vote varies quite a bit from plce to place.

    I lived in Philadelphia for twenty years. There, about the only gesture local gummint made towards informing people about the current election and the voring process was to publish a sample ballot in the Dialy News. Since candidate lists and whatever referenda there might be varied from place to place within the city, it had to be a one-size-fits-all sample.

    Finding my polling place generally meant going out and buttonholing my neighbors until I found one who knew where it was this year.

    Then I moved to L.A.

    Here, a month or so before each election, I get a booklet in the mail from the county clerk's office. In it is a sample ballot which is an exact duplicate of the one I will find at my local poll, detailed instructions on how to use the voting device (when I moved here we were using punch cards; now it's the ink-in-the-bubble optical scan cards)and the exact location of my polling place.

    It includes a section with statements from candidates for local office and, if there are county measures on the ballot, arguments submitted by advocates on each side and a supposedly impartial analysis of how they would operate and their likely fiscal impact by the county counsel.

    For elections involving statewide measures, the state sends out a booklet of its own with the same kind of thing.

    The first itme I received one of these in the mail, I nearly went into culture shock.

    Now if they'd just start scheduling elections on my days off...

  16. Ok, so here is a question about what voting/democracy?

    Is the number of votes more important than lets say a passion/vote ratio? In other words, say 2 people voted against something, while only 1 person voted for it. But the one person who voted for it cared three time as much about the results? (I don't mean cared about the politics, but how much the result affected their lives).

    In some real sense this does get accounted for by voter turn out. Voters who turn out are more likely to care about the issue. It also gets accounted for in some types of lobbies. NRA members really really care about their guns, so they "vote" with their wallets. If the average citizen really really cared about limiting gun ownership, they would "vote" equally as well with their wallets (but for all the uproar, they don't).

    The same idea can be applied to the need to register. It may dissuade some by virtue that you have to "do something", but is that a reflection of the apathy level of the person who doesn't get around to registering?

    As an interesting thought experiment, Robert A. Heinlen took voting rights to an extreme in "Starship Troopers" where he postulated a society where completion of "Federal Service" was required to earn citizenship and the right to vote. In his society, most people chose not to become "citizens". The protagonists father was a wealthy, successful and perfectly happy businessman who was proud of the fact that his family had a history of not being citizens.

    Federal Service was open to anyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion (or non-religion), etc. In theory every minority group had fair representation in the voting body (only veterans, not those currently serving could vote). In fact much has been made of today's military being mostly composed of working class and minorities, so in such a system they may possibly have greater voting influence than they do in today's environment.

    According to the characters in the book, the system worked because: "the soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member. The civilian does not." Not because they were more moral or smarter, wiser or more disciplined.

    Here is an excerpt where a teacher explains the system in class:

    "Mr. Salomon, can you give me a reason - not historical, nor theoretical but practical - why the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans?"
    "Uh, because they are picked men, sir. Smarter."
    "Preposterous!.... Service men are not brighter than civilians. In many cases civilians are much more intelligent. [Intelligence] despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility."
    Sally answered, "Uh, service men are disciplined, sir."
    Major Reid was gentle with him. "Sorry. An appealing theory not backed up by facts. [It is not] verifiable that military discipline makes a man self-disciplined once he is out; the crime rate of veterans is much like that of civilians...."
    Major Reid smiled. "Mr. Salomon, I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.
    "Nevertheless, it is instructive to observe the details. Throughout history men have labored to place the sovereign franchise in hands that would guard it well and use it wisely, for the benefit of all....."
    "All systems seek to achieve this by limiting franchise to those who are believed to have the wisdom to use it justly. I repeat 'all systems'; even the so-called 'unlimited' democracies' excluded from franchise not less than one quarter of their populations by age, birth, poll tax, criminal record, or other.'
    Major Reid smiled cynically. "I have never been able to see how a thirty-year old moron can vote more wisely than a fifteen-year old genius ... but that was the age of the 'divine right of the common man.' Never mind, they paid for their folly.
    "The sovereign franchise has been bestowed by all sorts of rules - place of birth, family of birth, race, sex, property, education, age, religion, et cetera. All these systems worked and none of them well. All were regarded as tyrannical by many, all eventually collapsed or were overthrown.
    "Under our system, every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage. And that is the one practical difference. He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history."

    ...we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service . . . Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility -- we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life -- and lose it, if need be to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert."

    While I enjoyed the book, I am not advocating this system, just pointing it out as a thought experiment. Again, it would work in an era that had already established equality as a basis for service. There is a controversy about whether Heinlen meant military service vs.. any kind of civil service. The book points heavily in favor of the former, but Heinlen in separate writings insisted that civil service would qualify and that 19 of 20 Federal Service members were not military. To be frank, the militarism ascpect bothers me, but the concept of earning franchise through social responsibility is interesting -- though I have not fully explored its downsides philosophically. Again, it smacks of being agaisnt the spirit of true democracy.

  17. Sorry for going off track here, I just had to say this:

    Hurrah! I helped to hand the Republican party a BIIIIIIG defeat in the great Commonwealth of Virginia! Yay for governor-elect Kaine!

    It still doesn't make up for the disappointment after the last presidential election, but hopefully it is a sign that the tide has finally turned back in the direction of sanity...

  18. Sharing Glee with Adrienne,

    I live in Lancaster, PA.

    Dover (yes “the Dover”) is practically in my back yard. Around 9:30 last night, most the polls were showing a win for the Dover school board incumbents. By 10:30, it looked like 4 had been voted out. Around 11:00, the votes were tallied, and all 8 were out. I leapt out of bed and did one of those feet clicking things you see in old cartoons sometimes (I’m surprised I didn’t fall and break my neck) in the process waking up my wife who was scared to death that something was wrong.

    If things keep going this good I might have to reconsider this whole atheism thing.
    (That was a joke, for those of you who need that pointed out.)


  19. Kudo's all you Virginians, (used to live in Alexandria and Arlington myself), New Jerseyites, and Dover PA residents.

    May we now have a moment of silence for the death of reason in Kansas.

    New Subject: to die anyway

    I too struggled financially to get through college, then worked like hell til I was 65 (including 7 years active duty in the military). Now retired I still work 15-20 hours/week so we can pay for health insurance. Sure isn't the way I expected to spend my retirement.

    Not everyone can be highly educated, not everyone can be a highly paid paper shuffler but everyone who is willing to work deserves a decent living, and that just isn't the way it is anymore. There are too many folks who have degrees and can't find a job that pays more than 9-10 dollars /hr and you just can't make it on that. There are too many people working two or more jobs and still can't make it. This country is so messed up I wonder if we'll ever recover. Certainly not if we don't rid the White House and the Congress of the lazy, unintteligent, ignorant, criminally-minded, scumsucking leeches that now inhabit those once hallowed halls. I hope I got all your best adjectives in their d.a.)

    I don't mind seeing some my tax money going to help some guy who may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but is willing to work but still needs a hand. Guess I'm weird!

  20. As a Veteran, I can see the attraction of only Vets voting. Yet, I can see many, many drawbacks.

    First the attraction would be very temporary, I would suggest only Vets be allowed to run for office and serve in the cabinet. I would not let Vets that did not serve overseas either. Since I was drafted and went to Korea during the Vietnam war, I would be against only letting Vets who served in a war vote and be President, I would draw the line to include me.

    Now, my real objections to such a plan are 1) that it requires and assumes constant war, or at least a large, high turnover military. 2) while the point of view of Vets is unique and valuable, there are other points of view that are also valuable. 3) Let's see, in the past we generaly kept Women out of the Military, now Gays, and effectively the college educated - so we would end up with a relatively uneducated, highly skewed electorate.

    Not what I think of when I hear the word Democracy.

  21. Well as I pointed out Heinlein's story was set in the future and there was equality, including women, gays, etc.

    But I agree, I wasn't fond of the military aspect. I did wonder if the general idea that one earned franchise through an explicit expression of social responsibility really would result in a better system.

    I also concluded that I skeptical, but it was interesting to think about nonetheless.

  22. Voting has always been much of a conundrum for me. It makes sense, you get to have a say etc. Most often the issues are far more important than those humans that claim to represent them. I have as little faith in the Democrats who I generally vote for, than I do the Repulicans.
    I am a firm adherent to politico/social trends and will apply Shermr's feedback loop to current events. The impact of the fundamentalist right has reached its zenith after enthralling so much of America. Voting America is in the first stages of adjusting to a new understanding about their own self interests and will begin ousting the Brownbacks and DeLays and voting in school boards who want good future scientists who recognize the currency of evolution.
    It is not a panacea but I am confident the next 10 years will be better than the last 5.
    Anyway, I vote because I think I should and I have the right but I have little confidence in those humans I vote for.

  23. To Alan:
    I don't believe people of any social caste necessarily vote in their own best interest. I think they vote on a visceral level and may believe they are voting in their own interest but there are countless numbers who vote for the "anti abortion" candidate that will also ensure their children's chance of going to college is weakened or that their retirement throttled.
    If the grand majority of voters did so with their own best interests in mind our public schools would be safe and accessible while our stadiums paid for by those who profit from them.


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