In complaining about some innocuous postcards, Secretary of State Tom Schedler has created a Seinfeldian kerfuffle: a controversy about nothing.
Indeed, with regard to mailers that list the recent ballot-participation history of individual voters, Schedler should thank the sponsoring group, Americans for Prosperity, not verbally spank them. As Louisiana’s chief election officer, Schedler should welcome efforts to encourage higher rates of honest voting by duly registered citizens.
Instead, Schedler wants legislation to outlaw AFP’s tactics. His proposal would amount not just to a solution in search of a (nonexistent) problem, but something worse: a new problem ruining a helpful solution. His intrusive-government response would make the kerfuffle insufferable.
Here’s what happened: AFP has mailed several versions of a postcard with a graphic showing whether a citizen voted in the two most recent election cycles, and text either thanking those who did vote for doing their “civic duty” or reminding the nonvoters that “who votes is a matter of record” and promising to mail an updated chart to show whether the person voted in 2014. Both messages close by urging that the recipient vote on Nov. 4, with the postcard’s flip side identifying AFP as a group that “works to encourage and increase participation in the electoral process.”
(AFP is more than that: It’s a conservative grass-roots organization. But this mildly worded postcard makes no reference, even obliquely, to particular candidates, issues or philosophy.)
Some people apparently are, to use the vernacular, creeped out at seeing that somebody is tracking their voter participation rate. The horror, the horror. The simple fact is that hundreds of political groups track that information constantly. Not even the American Civil Liberties Union objects. As Marie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, told the Times-Picayune, “There is nothing private about whether you voted.”
Schedler’s proposal would prohibit groups from putting that information on the outside of a mail piece (presumably still allowing them to put it inside an envelope). But why? Even on a postcard, who is going to see it? Will neighbors snoop in each others’ mailboxes (and break the law in doing so) to find out if they voted? If that’s the case, the problem isn’t AFP, it’s an illegally nosy neighbor.
Oh sure, the postman might see it. Oh, the humanity! He already knows if you subscribe to Cosmo or habitually order gadgets from the Home Shopping Network. Do we really need yet another government regulation to prohibit the postman from gaining knowledge that’s already public by law? And do we really think the postman cares whether you vote?
Frankly, the post office probably would rather have Schedler’s law in effect than to see if you voted. After all, stamped envelopes cost more than postcards, thus bringing more money to the debt-ridden Postal Service’s coffers. (Then again, Schedler’s proposal could make it cost-prohibitive for groups like AFP to contact voters at all, thus dissuading participation in the political process. Bad idea.)
Schedler should be more concerned with low voter participation than with groups trying to encourage civic responsibility. Granted, some would argue that if citizens don’t care enough to vote, they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to participate anyway. This theory holds that ill-informed voters are worse than low turnout.
Maybe so, but that misses the point. The point is that no good citizen should be ill-informed. Representative government is a historically rare blessing. There is no good excuse whatsoever for failing to learn basic civics and then taking a few minutes daily to stay informed. Blessings require responsibilities (moral, if not legal). A citizen in a republic has a responsibility to avoid ignorance of public affairs.
Even if we posit that it’s not wise to vote if one is ignorant, the corollary then becomes true: If the only good reason for a healthy person not to vote is if he’s ignorant, then by not voting, one is acknowledging either ignorance or dereliction.
Every political group in the country already knows if you’ve been too derelict or ignorant to vote. Schedler seems to want to keep citizens ignorant of the fact that their ignorance is already known.
Lord, save us from government busybodies like Schedler who would save us from ourselves.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.