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Front Page - Friday, November 16, 2018

My take: Do we really want more people voting?

Almost 56 percent of Tennessee voters took part in last week’s election, the most for a midterm since 1994, reports indicate.

This is considered the good news, an indication of relatively high engagement by the electorate even without a presidential contest on the ballot to stir the juices.

Fair enough.

The flip side is that 44 percent still didn’t bother. Roughly 1.75 million Tennesseans sat things out.

That is considered the bad news, a failing that should cause hand-wringing over how to get more people involved. Everybody, even.

I’m not so sure about that part.

Both views are based on the assumption that every person qualified to vote should register, and every registered voter should cast a ballot in every election.

The bar is not set high in Tennessee. You have to be 18, a resident (with some municipal exceptions), not have been convicted of any disqualifying felony or, if you have been convicted, have had your voting rights restored.

You also can’t have been adjudicated by a court as mentally incompetent. (The Mississippi Constitution bars “idiots and insane persons.” The Tennessee Constitution has no such prohibition. Insert your own joke here.)

I’m not going to make any comments about the mental competency of people who voted for candidates I found lacking. That would be wrong. Despite the temptation.

And I have no patience for assorted officials who make it harder to vote based on the bogus justification that such efforts are intended to combat election fraud. I call BS on that.

By the way, ain’t it funny how the people who buy these fraud arguments are the same ones who pooh-pooh any impact of Russia’s actual, documented meddling in the 2016 election?

I do support efforts to make it easier to register and easier to vote. Hold elections on Saturdays. Make Election Day a holiday. Vote by mail. Whatever it takes, within reason.

But I’m against any measure that would try to compel voting, as has been done in some countries, including Australia. It’s a mistake to believe that a greater number of voters necessarily ensures a better or more legitimate outcome.

FairVote, an organization that promotes electoral reform, outlines some of the problems with that approach:

“One of the major arguments given by those against compulsory voting is that it leads to a greater number of uninformed voters, noting that those who choose not to vote are generally less educated on political issues than those who choose to vote.”

I think we can all agree that we don’t need a greater number of uninformed voters than we already clearly have. (I am again resisting temptation.)

Among the potential consequences FairVote goes on to list is this:

“It is often asserted that uninformed voters are more susceptible to the influence of money and spending on television ads.

“A short advertisement is likely to have a greater influence on an uninformed voter than one who already has strong views. This encourages the use of sensational and misleading advertising and may have a negative effect on campaigning techniques.”

Anyone in Tennessee who turned on a TV on in the past few months can attest to the “sensational and misleading advertising” that aired. 

I realize that arguing against widespread voting aligns me with some folks I’d rather not be aligned with. The kind of people who would be quite happy to see entire classes of voters (say, those who tend to vote Democratic) stay home on Election Day. And who pull all kinds of dirty tricks to see that happen.

I detest that sort of thing. I just believe that we’re probably better off not having the votes of people who might be swayed by the last commercial they saw before heading to the polls.

With, of course, one stipulation: If you don’t vote, for whatever reason, then you can’t complain about the result.

In other words, 1.75 million Tennesseans: Shut up.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.