The poet Carl Sandburg supposedly was asked by a young playwright to attend a rehearsal. Sandburg did but fell asleep. The playwright exclaimed, "How could you sleep when you knew I wanted your opinion?" Sandburg replied, "Sleep is an opinion."
So is nonvoting. Remember this as the Obama administration mounts a drive to federalize voter registration, a step toward making voting mandatory.
Attorney General Eric Holder considers it self-evidently alarming that 60 million adult citizens were not registered in 2008. He wants Washington to register everyone automatically. "The arc of American history," he says, "has bent towards expanding the franchise." But the fact many people do not register to vote is not evidence that the franchise is restricted other than by voters' inertia.
Holder's argument for trusting Washington, which does so many things badly, to superintend elections capably should be judged against this loopy statement by him: "We should rethink this whole notion that voting only occurs on Tuesday." This year, voting began in some states in September; as much as 40 percent of votes were cast before Election Day; 12 states allow online registration.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of Holder's civil rights division, rightly says that voting too often is "an endurance contest" involving a long wait in line, frequently because of questions about voters' registrations. But the Heritage Foundation's Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, says:
"One of the reasons that state voter registration rolls are in such poor shape today -- with large numbers of voters who are dead, have moved or are noncitizens -- is because of the restrictive standards imposed by the federal government in 1993 by the National Voter Registration Act. That law made it very difficult to remove ineligible voters. Local jurisdictions were sued so often by the Justice Department when they tried to remove ineligible voters, many stopped trying to clean up their lists at all. That is why there are many places around the country where the number of registered voters is greater than the Census says there are individuals of voting age."
Notice the perverse dialectic by which Washington aggrandizes its power: It promises to ameliorate problems exacerbated by its supposedly ameliorative policies. Notice, too, the logic of Perez's thesis that "our democracy is stronger when more people have a say in electing their leaders." Therefore the public good would be served by penalizing nonvoting, as Australia, Belgium and at least 10 other countries do. Liberals love mandates (e.g., health insurance). Why not mandatory voting?
In 1960, 62.8 percent of age-eligible citizens voted. In the 13 subsequent presidential elections, lower turnouts than this have coincided with the removal of impediments to voting (poll taxes, literacy tests, burdensome registration and residency requirements). Turnout has not increased as the electorate has become more educated and affluent and as government has become more involved in Americans' lives. There are four obvious reasons for nonvoting.
One is contentment. Americans are voluble complainers but are mostly comfortable. Second, the stakes of politics are agreeably low because constitutional rights and other essential elements of happiness are not menaced by elections. Those who think high voter turnout indicates civic health should note that in three German elections, 1932-33, turnout averaged more than 86 percent, reflecting the terrible stakes: The elections decided which mobs would rule the streets and who would inhabit concentration camps.
Third, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in 48 states -- an excellent idea, for many reasons -- means many state races without suspense. (After their conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in just eight and 10 battleground states, respectively.) Fourth, gerrymandered federal and state legislative districts reduce competitive races.
Because the likelihood of any individual's vote mattering is infinitesimal, and because the effort required to be an informed voter can be substantial, ignorance and abstention are rational, unless voting is cathartic or otherwise satisfying. A small voting requirement such as registration, which calls for the individual voter's initiative, acts to filter potential voters with the weakest motivations. They are apt to invest minimal effort in civic competence. As indifferent or reluctant voters are nagged to the polls -- or someday prodded there by a monetary penalty for nonvoting -- the caliber of the electorate must decline.
It has been said that for every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong. Washington soon may seek a complex "solution" -- pre-emption of states' responsibilities; federal micromanagement of elections; eventual coercion of lackadaisical citizens -- to the non-problem of people choosing not to vote.
(George Will is a columnist of The Washington Post Writers Group.)