Friday, 11 April 2014

When "Reasonable" Isn't.

     I've written about this before and quite recently, but I think it's extremely important, and I have more to say about it. And, while it's especially current right now in Canada with Bill C-23 about to be rammed through by a CPC majority, it's also relevant to a lot of similar movements in the U.S. to require stricter standards of voter ID. These initiatives tend to be motivated by an occasionally explicit desire to decrease voter turnout for demographics likelier to vote for one's opponents, but are invariably justified by a disingenuous and superficially reasonable argument that goes something like this:
We need to provide photo ID when we open a bank account, when we apply for a passport or a driver's license, when we buy alcohol, and any of countless other everyday interactions. It's not that big an imposition for these things, and we all recognize why it's necessary there. So why is it unreasonable to expect voters to provide documents proving who they are before they can vote?

     Sure, that sounds eminently reasonable. Most of the ID the government wants us to be able to provide when we vote isn't all that hard to get, at least not for the demographic that makes up most of the governing party's constituency, so anyone who isn't willing to go to the trouble must not really want to vote, right? But let's apply the very same reasonableness argument to another voting measure, and see what happens:
We need to pay a fee when we write a cheque, when we apply for a passport or a driver's license, when we buy alcohol, and any of countless other every day interactions. It's not that big an imposition for these, all of which need to be paid for somehow. So why is it unreasonable to expect voters to pay a modest poll tax when they show up to vote?

     Why indeed. After all, assuming the price is something really low (or as we are wont to say of inexpensive things, "reasonable"), it can't really be considered a barrier to democratic participation, can it? Anyone who can't be bothered to scrape together $5 once every four years or so must not really care enough to vote, right?

     See, "reasonable" is not an argument by itself. Requiring that someone be able to provide one of 37 different forms of acceptable ID is of course "reasonable" in terms of the scale of sacrifice it demands, just as $5 per person is a very "reasonable" price for all that goes into running an election. But that's using the adjective "reasonable" in two ways, and trying to pass the whole claim off as reasonable. It is not reasonable to charge any price (however "reasonable") for the right to vote.
     The way we determine if an argument is reasonable is by looking at the quality of its reasoning. And the reasoning behind voter ID laws is profoundly flawed. It's based on a host of pernicious assumptions that are downright poisonous to the idea of democratic governance.

     First of all, one of these assumptions is that voting is an individual right. It isn't. Voting looks like an individual right, because you can choose to vote or not to vote, and no one else has any claim on how you vote or if you vote at all. It's entirely your choice how to exercise the right, but taken in isolation, the individual right to vote is utterly meaningless. (Your choice not to vote isn't actually a choice not to vote, but rather to ratify the outcome of how everyone else votes. And that's a valid choice, but it should be a choice.)
     Imagine you show up at the polling station with several hundred others, all of whom agree with you that candidate A is the better choice. There are about nine people supporting candidate B, but it just so happens that they're the ones managing the voting process. One by one, each person who presents their credentials to vote is rejected for totally arbitrary reasons. But for some reason, they look at your ID, hand you your ballot, and let you vote. The final result: Candidate B is elected in a landslide with 90% of all votes cast.
     Do you have any right to complain about this? After all, your right to vote wasn't violated. You got to cast your ballot. The fact that a lot of other people didn't is none of your concern, is it?
     You bet it is. That's kind of the point of voting: finding out what the collective will of The People is, and that involves taking into account everyone's free and uncoerced choice at the voting booth. Your right isn't just to have your vote counted, but to have everyone else's vote counted as well.

     If voting were only an individual right, then the fact that some poor schmuck doesn't get to vote because he doesn't have $5 or the right kind of ID would be of no concern to the rest of us. But the very nature of voting is inherently collective; everyone who supports the same candidate as the excluded voter is penalized when that voter is excluded. Arbitrary barriers, however "reasonable", reduce participation and undermine the legitimacy of the outcome.


  1. It may be simply a matter of semantics Tom, but I would have to start by saying I don’t see voting so much as a right, but as a responsibility. While your tongue in cheek argument about charging people $5 to vote is interesting, I prefer (at least in theory as I’ve never studied it) the Australian model where if you don’t vote you are fined. I have no problems with people spoiling their ballots if they so choose, but they should still show up to show it is a conscious decision. With advance polls and mail in ballots, there is no reason due to timing at least why a person should not be able to vote.
    On the issue of Bill C-23 I suppose I should start by asking how many instances there are of vouching in an election. I would assume it is not that frequent, which to me begs the question if it isn’t broke why fix it. That said I do not think having to show ID in order to vote is asking too much of people. Proof of living in a riding I agree can be tricky for the homeless, but that is something I’m sure could have been figured out if they had put their minds to it.
    While I don’t disagree with, I do perceive a big flaw in, your argument with regards to your example where Candidate B is elected in a landslide with 90% of the votes as a reason to disallow vouching. There is a counter scenario that is equally as unappealing to ban vouching. In a close race, if there are a large number of people from out of the riding who are “vouched for” and thus allowed to vote in the riding for Candidate B, even though the majority of the votes cast by those who live in the riding would have elected Candidate A, they would end up being represented by Candidate B whom the legitimate votes would have rejected. Another possible argument is they vote in their riding then head across town to vote in a friend’s riding by having the friend vouch for them.
    It’s not just about having your vote, and everyone else’s vote count, it’s making sure the vote is cast in the correct riding for someone to represent you. It’s not just about voting. Without safeguards to ensure that the other person voted in their riding (and not in mine), and to make sure they only voted once, the legitimacy of the outcome is also in question.

    David A. Busch

  2. Vouching doesn't happen all THAT often. I've heard it's maybe around 50 to 100 thousand voters each time. But the important thing to remember is that vouching is NOT just some guy saying, "It's cool, he's with me!" The voucher actually has to swear out an affidavit, and has to be someone who DOES satisfy the other ID requirements. So vouching is just a way of creating the supporting documentation on the spot. There is a record, and a paper trail so that someone's on the hook for legal consequences if the affidavit is false.

    You're right that it's important to prevent double-voting, and to ensure that people are only voting where they're supposed to. Obviously it wouldn't do for a populous country like China to send over a couple million tourists to elect us a government more responsive to China's interests; the laws should be made by people elected by the actually governed.

    However, the counter scenario is not EQUALLY as unappealing. Preventing one legitimate vote is, mathematically, more damaging to the integrity of the system than allowing one additional illegitimate one. Say there are 10 legitimate voters. Prohibiting one of them arbitrarily from voting makes the ballot only 90% representative of the "actual" will of the legitimate voters. But adding one illegitimate voter dilutes the voice of the voters to 10/11, or 90.91%. Purely mathematically, then, it's actually slightly better to err on the side of allowing a suspect voter than to exclude one.

    In fact, I'd go beyond the raw math to say that in the real world, people who are trying to vote are going to be people who care about the outcome of the election for some reason, which usually means they live in the riding. Very rarely will they vote in two ridings, because you can actually get caught and punished for that, so usually it's people who maybe aren't TECHNICALLY eligible because they've only been there 5 months, but who are for all moral and practical purposes actual members of the community whose interests ought to be represented in some way. So to some extent, letting them vote isn't such a terrible thing.

    Obviously we need rules to ensure that ballot stuffing and other corruptions of the system don't happen, but the PURPOSE of those rules is to preserve the integrity of the democratic process by ensuring everyone is heard; the rules should serve that purpose, not replace it.

    1. A clarification on vouching, based on my experience as a DRO.

      Vouching is a relatively small number of votes, but it's highly concentrated. There's a tendency for busloads of people to come in from a nearby reserve, and have one person vouch for every other person there, one affidavit at a time. It takes a huge amount of time and can bog down the system to the point that people cannot vote in a timely enough fashion and lose their window of opportunity. That's a legitimate impediment to democracy.

      I'd like to see that problem go away, but I'm not sure this is the best way to do it. Maybe if we had already made access to government ID free and readily available, but we need to jump that hurdle before changing voting laws as opposed to doing it later.

    2. Thanks, Ted. That's certainly a problem, but it's not the problem the government claims to be addressing. They claim to be worried about people vouching for people who shouldn't be voting at all. Of course, it's only coincidence that the people they think shouldn't be voting are likelier to vote for other parties.

  3. You assume that there is integrity in the democratic process and that everyone's voice being heard makes any difference at all. Fighting so hard to defend a chimera seems, at the end of the day, a colossal waste of time.

  4. It IS a waste of time, in a perversely and perfectly democratic way, if enough people agree it's a waste of time. You ARE voting with your apathy: you are voting against democracy. I hope to change your mind.

  5. I shall devote the next post to that very task.

  6. For the record Tom I agree with all you've put up, those last couple anonymous posts were not from me. Personally I think keeping the current system but perhaps have someone go through after the fact and confirm the vouched votes live in the riding.

    David busch

  7. Such a mechanism already exists, David. I worked the last municipal and provincial elections; there is an enormous pile of paperwork that is kept to document who voted and how they identified themselves. I don't think they automatically go through these records after every election, but they do keep them for a while so that if there are any concerns, a thorough investigation may be carried out. And most of the time, there really isn't any problem.

  8. Nice to know, as I mentioned before this is an area I really don't know much about as I've never really looked into it. Frankly while I was never really comfortable with the idea of vouching, I also don't think it's a problem that needs to be fixed as unless the final results were so close that number of vouched votes could shift the results it would be a non issue. Don't see why it needed to be changed especially if they kept the records and had the ability to confirm the vouched votes at a later date should it be a very tight result.

    David Bushc