Debates over voting rights are debates over definitions of democracy

Democracy’s an odd game: We turn nominal decision-making power to the masses and say “go,” only later finding out what we’ve won.

Of course, it’s hard to say if we’ve won. After all, how do you judge the “success” of a democracy? By the strength of its institutions? By the quantity or quality of participation by its citizens? By the utility of the outcomes it produces?

Within political science, there’s a debate as to which of these metrics matter most when judging the merits of a democratic state. In his 2012 book, Framing Democracy, J.T. Kelly organizes this debate by constructing a spectrum on which to place particular democratic theories.

As he frames his discussion, “proceduralist” theories of democracy argue that simply having sound institutions is sufficient, with the competency of voters being irrelevant so long as elections are free and fair. “Epistemic” theories, on the other hand, argue that the outcomes of elections run the risk of being “bad” if citizens aren’t able to come to rational or “correct” conclusions about the implications of their votes.

There are problems at both ends of the spectrum: If citizens are unable to articulate their interests at the ballot box — say, for example, they are consistently manipulated by the rich — then democratic outcomes won’t be “good” as measured by representation of voters’ interests, even if every eligible voter casts a ballot. But as soon as you start rating citizens’ performance at the ballot box as “good” or “bad” relative to how closely their votes match their interests — be they economic or social — you’re implicitly making the case that “bad” democratic citizens shouldn’t be voting.

The farther along the spectrum you move from procedural to epistemic, and the more individual citizens’ performances are judged as opposed to institutions as a whole, the more exclusive the ideal democracy becomes. When you get to the epistemic pole of the spectrum, you aren’t even left with what could be reasonably construed as a democracy in the first place; you can just let one enlightened philosopher king make all of the decisions, as their preference will maximize the society’s utility.

Democracy, via Creative Commons

Democracy, via Creative Commons

Debates over access to the ballot are, therefore, really debates over theories of democracy. Josh Yazman’s post yesterday, which included an argument for mandatory voting, made the proceduralist claim that what matters most in our democracy is that everyone casts a ballot, regardless as to how they vote. By contrast, the civics tests and property ownership requirements that have been increasingly championed on the Right, in light of recent electoral losses, are epistemic moves that express a frustration with voters who are seen as either too ignorant or too divested in order to vote for the right candidates.

These debates are especially important today because American democracy has, until recently, been marked by a gradual expansion of the franchise — itself a gradual redefinition of what constitutes a good democratic citizen. From direct election of senators to women’s suffrage to the Voting Rights Act, a democracy that started as a club for white landowners morphed into a much fairer and more open system, as groups who were previously judged as normatively “bad” democratic citizens earned the right to prove otherwise.

Over time, this has moved America firmly into the procedural side of Kelly’s spectrum. We place far more trust in ordinary citizens than the Founders did, and we do so because the individual competency of a voter can’t be effectively legislated based on their identity. There are uninformed voters in every demographic group, and attempts to pick and choose which citizens should be allowed to cast ballots on this basis have always been, slowly but surely, rejected as illegitimate.

But in spite of this history, those with epistemic aims are pushing back. While the recent flurry of laws designed to make it harder for people to vote are themselves exercises in procedure — How do you register to vote? What forms of ID do you need to bring to the polls? Will your family’s taxes change based on where you choose to vote? — their goals are centered on a redefinition of who is qualified to show up on Election Day. They are, without exception, sponsored and passed by Republican legislators, who freely admit that they are designed to change the outcome of elections in their favor.

Freedmen at a voter registration office, via Shutterstock

Freedmen at a voter registration office, via Shutterstock

What’s more, these attempts to tweak the rules of the game so as to engineer electoral outcomes are couched in epistemic language. We are told that women — particularly young women who aren’t married — don’t really know what’s best for them or their country, so they should stick to what they do know: Tinder and yoga pants. And we are told that black people have been “brainwashed” by the Democratic Party, so when they repeatedly choose candidates who, well, want them to keep their right to vote, they’re making a mistake. In both cases, the tone is clear: Votes that are unlikely to be cast correctly are best left uncast.

The only way you can call these ideas anything other than anti-democratic is if you have a different idea as to what the word “democracy” means. And the only way you can call the policies supporting these ideas anything other than anti-American is by rejecting what is now centuries of advancement toward a more open American electoral process — one that remains indifferent to the beliefs and interests of its voters.

If you believe that America is only a democracy so long as elections produce the “correct” outcome — namely, a GOP victory — then fine, state your case. But let’s at least be clear as to what the terms of debate are.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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