The National Review's Terrible Take on Voting Rights

OWN Your Vote Event with Oprah - Wilmington, DE - October 28, 2020

Kevin Williamson of the National Review, in an article drawing strong reaction on social media, attempts to make the case that fewer but better quality voters may be better for the republic. Although just the mere suggestion of such an antidemocratic idea is enough for all the scorn the NRO and Williamson are deservedly getting, I believe a record repudiating Williamson’s arguments is needed to counter the narrative that the National Review is attempting to create on behalf of Republican state legislators across the country who are engaged in a widespread project to disenfranchise voters who do not vote Republicans and specifically, Black voters.

Indeed, Williamson is far from alone in his belief that restrictive 21st-century poll taxes and Jim Crow laws should be enacted to reduce the number of voters, because generally speaking, a large voter turnout tends to prefer Democrats for office. This view is so prevalent in the post-one-term-Trump era that Republican lawyers are arguing it in the Supreme Court.

So, here, I will create that record by dismantling the fallacies and core incompetencies arguments like Williamson's expose.

The core theme of Williamson’s argument is that “better quality” voters would be preferable to higher quantity of voters, but that argument aims to override the core organizing tenet of a representative, democratic republic: more voters is in and of itself a good because the government derives its powers from the consent of the governed - the consent of all of the governed. That consent is more legitimate, more just, and even more small-R republican when more people can and do vote.

Williamson anticipates and counters this point by confusing direct democracy and plebiscite with the role of voters in electing their representatives.
"... legitimacy is not popularity and popularity is not consent. The entire notion of representative government assumes that the actual business of governing requires fewer decision-makers rather than more."
This is a nice-sounding take, but taken to its logical conclusion, this is an argument in favor of monarchy and dictatorship. After all, you can’t really get “fewer” decision makers than one, and a monarch can simply be assigned (say by divine ordainment) the responsibility to care for all their subjects and has a responsibility to all their subjects. Who needs legislatures, separation of powers, federalism, and all that complicated mumbo jumbo?

Still, Williamson says consent can be obtained without universal franchise, because desirable voters are just like desirable elected representatives who need to represent (or vote) more than just their self-interest or opinion, and since these ‘desirable’ voters are already thinking of the undesirables, you don’t really need the rest.
"Representatives are people who act in other people’s interests, which is distinct from carrying out a group’s stated demands as certified by majority vote. Legitimacy involves, among other interests, the government’s responsibility to people who are not voters, such as children, mentally incapacitated people, incarcerated felons, and non-citizen permanent residents. Their interests matter, too, but we do not extend the vote to them. So we require a more sophisticated conception of legitimacy than one-man, one-vote, majority rule."
Of course, democratically elected representatives are not simply proxy votes in the legislature for the majority view of their constituents on any given issue. They have the ability and the responsibility to exercise independent judgment, follow their constituents but also lead their constituents when appropriate, and in many ways, consider the impact of policy on people who may not even be their direct constituents.

But the citizen’s exercise of a vote is fundamentally different from - and more fundamental than - the government’s exercise of power. Why? Because the citizen’s power is inherent, the government’s derived.

And because the citizen’s power is more fundamental than the government's, the government cannot unduly restrict the franchise or exercise judgment about which citizens are better equipped to exercise such franchise.

While good citizenship is often about reaching more than self-interest or even self-opinion, the difference between an elected official and a citizen is that the representative has no inherent power except that which is granted to them by the consent of the governed, but the citizen does. Because political power inherently resides in the people, that means that power inherently resides in each citizen. The government must justify its authority and the exercise of that authority through demonstrating the consent of the governed, but the citizen has no obligation to justify her power, because her power is inherent. It is not the case that no powers of citizenship can ever be removed in a democracy, but the burden to justify removal of any powers of citizenship through due process is entirely on the government.

Those who are otherwise eligible but are excluded from voting through onerous laws have been stripped of their most fundamental power: the right to consent, without due process, and therefore cannot be legitimately governed by the government elected through the stripping of their consent.

It is because the citizen’s power is inherent that other democratic rights - the rights to speak freely, redress grievances, and organize, for example - are protected from the government’s interference. It is so that the people can continuously assert their will. But the bedrock protecting all of that is fundamentally the franchise. So while it is true that a vote alone does not always constitute consent, consent cannot be constituted without the vote.

It is not that a democracy should never care about voter qualifications. Williamson notes that children should not be allowed to vote, even if some older children are better informed and capable of better judgment than their parents or older siblings who can vote. We also do not allow non-citizens to vote.

But these exceptions do not pose a systemic challenge to self-government. Immigrants - until we become citizens - are guests in this country (indeed, in any country), thus not yet eligible for full participation in the democratic process, and furthermore, may be sovereign citizens of another country.

Children also do not have full rights under the Constitution. A child’s parents or guardians can consent to a search of their property, medical treatment or immunizations. In fact, children cannot sign enforceable contracts in most cases, and voting is, after all, a contract between the government and the governed.

Both children and immigrants have a path to becoming voters. Children eventually become adults through the magical process known as the passing of time, and voila, they can vote. Immigrants, depending on their immigration status, can usually follow a process to become citizens as well - and those immigrants who cannot, should be able to. Felons who lose their franchise as part of the punishment for a crime should have it restored once the term of the punishment is over.

The convenient sparring about whether voter suppression is the same thing as 16-year-olds being denied the right to vote, however, ignores what voter suppression is about: denying already eligible voters the right to vote. The present debate about voter suppression isn’t about whether 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote but about how difficult voting should be for those who are already allowed to vote. And to follow Williamson’s thread, the debate is also about whether such restrictions improve the ‘quality’ of the population that does actually vote.

Let’s get to that.

Williamson argues in favor of restrictive voting because, he says, it will improve the quality of voters. Professions are made higher-quality by licensing requirements, drivers are required to carry and keep their drivers licenses up-to-date, and filing taxes takes time and can be onerous. Therefore, he says, voters too should face some obstacles and those who don’t want to go through those obstacles shouldn’t be voting anyway.

But even by Williamson’s own standards, he presents no evidence that when it comes to voting, those who can easily meet restrictions under onerous laws are better-quality voters than those who find it more difficult to do so.

Luckily, Williamson defines what makes for a quality voter in the quote above: someone who thinks not just about themselves or their own benefits but those of others as well, just like elected representatives have to do (a surprisingly liberal definition, for what it's worth). So, where is the evidence that those who obtain a state issued ID or a passport are more community-minded than those who don’t or easily cannot? Where’s the data showing those who drop off their mail-in ballots between 8 am and 5 pm are more likely to care about their neighbors than those who can’t get to a dropbox before 7 pm? What proof is there to show that keeping the people waiting in hours-long lines deprived of water will make them a better voter as opposed to just a less likely one?

No such evidence exists, because for people like Williamson and publications like the National Review, the goal isn’t to actually find better voters; it is to legitimize voter suppression by pretending that a suppressed voter is a ‘bad’ voter.

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