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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10 Responses to “Debates over voting rights are debates over definitions of democracy”

  1. Guest says:

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  2. Bill_Perdue says:

    The most important difference between the two parties is that when rightwing Republican policies fail and/or become unpopular, Democrats, who until recently could fool more people, rush in to get them passed or signed. DOMA, NAFTA, gutting welfare, increasing the number of cops and arming them with everything but nukes, deregulation, imposed austerity, war after war after war, border racism and attacks on the standard of living of workers.

  3. cambridgemac says:

    Finis origine pendet. The end is contained in the beginning.
    “Ya are whatcha are, Blanche!”

  4. cambridgemac says:

    “Until someone we LIKE can get elected…We’ll send the Marines!” went Tom Lehrer’s 1960s lyrics. He accurately captured the one percent’s commitment to democracy in Latin America.

    That very tenuous “commitment” to democracy was always bipartisan in nature. The fact that the Republicans behave that way at home should not lead us to overlook the Democrats’ desire longstanding habit of giving the one percent almost everything they demand…. (The Republican try to give 105%)

  5. 2karmanot says:

    The concept of a ‘bad’ democracy in its raw epistemic bulkiness is a dynamic that must include in its complexity the direct consequences the ravages of late stage capitalism and hegemony of economic globalism, which increasingly seems to trump nation states everywhere.

  6. BeccaM says:

    There are different forms of democratic government, some better suited to ensuring the will of the people is pursued.

    Sadly, America’s “democratic republican” (no pun intended) form started out imperfectly as a series of compromises to try to keep the newly independent collection of colony-states from flying apart. Indeed, its first incarnation under the Articles of Confederation likely would have ended up with thirteen small nation-states all squabbling and going to war with one another in time. So the Constitution was drafted.

    While it has some admirable elements, many of the Constitution’s compromises are its worst features. It began by defining fully rights-endowed humans as only the white male immigrants from Europe — not the indigenous peoples of America and certainly not the enslaved Africans and their descendants. Of course not women. Another flaw, of course, was in restricting the vote to white, male property owners — which means the country literally began as government by the rich, for the rich. And still another flaw was created from the bones of those insular “me first!” colonies, giving two senators to every state no matter how thinly populated and further failing to ensure fair and equitable representation. “MY Representative” rather than a much more democratic system of “OUR Representatives” (which, by the way, would result in a more parliamentary system of governance.) Between legalized political gerrymandering and winner-takes-all elections, it was all but inevitable the country would gravitate towards two party rule.

    Now, with one of those parties, the Republicans, openly calling into question those few democratic elements which still exist within our system of governance — universal suffrage, fair elections, and so on — it remains to be seen whether one day they’ll just seize power. If that happens, we can call the Great Experiment to be finally over.

    But let’s get real here: America is not and never has been a democracy. It was and is a republic with a new system of government based in part on untried political theories and some democratic features that nevertheless were intended to ensure it was white men of means who would rule everyone else. If you take a look, that’s pretty much what we have, with only a few exceptions. While the Republicans are toying with overtly antidemocratic measures such as restricting the right to vote, trying to ensure only their voters are allowed to vote, and working to set things up so that even as a minority party, they have majority rule, the Democrats are far from blameless.

    Over the decades, the Democrats have indeed been to the left of the Republicans, but by geopolitical standards, ever since Jimmy Carter took office they willingly began ratcheting to the conservative right. In a fair and more democratic system of government, every American would be guaranteed the right to vote, yet citizens in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the other American territories do not have a real voice in the national government and often not even in their own. Just witness how right now a man from Utah is telling DC residents they may not govern themselves.

    In short, while some aspects of America’s system of governments (plural intentional) have become more democratic over time, others have not. As I said, we started with a system that was intentionally designed for wealthy white males to rule everyone else. Now, we’re seeing a regression, with the advances of the last century being undone one by one. For a time, gerrymandering became a scandalous thing to be caught doing; now it’s just the expected spoils of winning a decade-ending election cycle. Attempts to stop the overt purchasing of political favors have been undone; now money is deemed to equal free speech, politicians openly accept bribes, and corporations have rights superseding those of blood-and-flesh people. Blatant moves to disenfranchise minority voters gets little but some flustered hand-waving. Civil rights, including the right to protest, the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and the rights of freedom of association are being abridged every day. A general is caught giving national secrets to his mistress and because despite his disgrace he’s still considered part of the elite and powerful, his punishment is nothing; others who leak information documenting terrible crimes being committed, and they are immediately declared traitors, without trial. We’ve witnessed the poor of our nation being robbed by institutionalized shake-down operations such as the one in Ferguson…yet not a single person was ever held accountable when banks and mortgage companies were caught red-handed plundering and stealing people’s homes.

    America as a nation could become more democratic again, more representative of the wishes of its citizens — not just some, but all of them. However, that’s not what’s happening. The nation as a whole is regressing.

    Regressing to what? What America was originally designed to be: A nation run by right white men, for the purpose of protecting their wealth, power, and privileges.

  7. Demosthenes says:


    Any other questions?

  8. Demosthenes says:

    Another super piece, Mr. Green. The flurry of voter suppression laws shows the “epistemic” (haters of popular participation in elections) are winning. However, even with imposition of roadblocks, voter participation in our elections, in particular non-presidential ones, is a disgrace. Our ancestors fought and any died for all of us to have this right. Not voting is ceding the debate to those who seek to restrict our rights.

  9. MoonDragon says:

    Does the citizenship test include the ability to recognize empirically determined, scientifically validated reality vs superstition, junk science, and conspiracy theory?

  10. Bill_Perdue says:

    Abstract theorizing by ‘political science’ ‘theorists’ is irrelevant if it’s not centered on the political

    differences between parties and classes. Those differences and how they’re resolved are the sum total of politics.

    There is no debate over whether or not the US is a democracy. It isn’t and it can’t be as currently constituted. Instead, and the science is clear – the US is a plutocracy, a government of, for and by the rich. Votes are more or less meaningless because what people vote for is not what they get. The rich run thing and the political prostitutes who run both parties don’t create policy they merely administer the policies of the rich. Voting, under these conditions, is simply not important unless it’s a protest vote, a vote for an important referendum, a vote for none of the above or an abstention.

    Here are the facts. “A new scientific study from Princeton researcher Martin Gilens and Northwestern researcher Benjamin I. Page has finally put some science behind the recently popular argument that the United States isn’t a democracy any more. And they’ve found that in fact, America is basically an oligarchy.

    As Gilens and Page write, ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.” (My underlining – BP)

    Republican critics of their Democrat cousins and fellow right wingers are not particularly important, but left wing critics from the unions and communities of people of color are having an increasing and marked effect on both right wing parties. – Freedom Rider: Obama’s Final Insult to Michael Brown

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