»  National Review

December 18, 2000

   Too Dumb to Vote


One of the questions left hanging in the air during the great Florida vote-count fiasco was: When the Gore people asked for manual recounts in three of their counties, why didn't the Bush people do the same in three of theirs? Though I claim no inside knowledge, I am pretty sure I know the answer. The Bush people did not request recounts because they believed that any manual recount in any county would unearth extra Gore votes. They believed this because they believed that Republican voters do not mess up their ballot papers — not, at any rate, as often as Democrats do.

In defense of this thesis — the thesis, I mean, that this is what the Bush people believed — I offer the following piece of circumstantial evidence: the silence of the Bushies. For the Governor's people to say out loud that they believed the spoiling of ballots to be a mainly Democratic failing would be translated as: "GOP thinks Democrats are too dumb to vote." And that, in turn, would quickly be spun by the Democrats into: "GOP thinks African Americans are too dumb to vote." The Bush camp would rather be thought slow-footed than get stuck to that tar-baby. Being the Stupid Party isn't much fun, but in the minds of modern Republicans, it way beats being the Racist Party.

So much for what the Bush campaign believed to be the case. I note in passing that Gore's people seemed to believe it, too. How otherwise to explain Al Gore's November 14th offer to hand-count the whole state of Florida? Knowing the Vice President as we do, does anyone think he would have made that offer if he was in much doubt about the outcome?

But is it true, what these campaign operatives seem to believe? Is a Democratic voter more likely to spoil his ballot than a Republican? Well, a November 17th report in the New York Times about rejected ballots in Florida's Duval County is suggestive, though as always with such a fraught topic you have to read between the lines. Duval's ballot spread the names of presidential candidates over two pages. Large numbers of Democratic voters seemed to think, or to have been told, that they had to mark a candidate on every page. They therefore wound up having voted for more than one presidential candidate, thus invalidating their ballots. Says the Times:

The double-marked ballots substantially affected Mr. Gore's showing. … More than 20 per cent of the votes cast in predominantly African-American precincts were tossed out, nearly triple the majority white precincts. In two largely African-American precincts, nearly one-third of the ballots were invalidated.

What seems to have happened is that Democratic precinct workers had energetically registered, then transported to the polls, African American voters from wherever they could find them, without any regard to whether these voters had any interest in, or understanding of, the contest, or any familiarity with voting procedures. Yes, some Democrats are too dumb to vote. So are some Republicans. But people that dumb generally stay home, joining the 50 per cent of Americans who do not bother to vote. If you pressure them into the voting booth, they will bungle the process. Perhaps it is not the dumbness that is so peculiarly Democratic as the pressuring.

If we admit the concept of "too dumb to vote," the solution would be some restriction on the right to vote based on competency. There is nothing intrinsically shocking about this. Many of our constitutional rights can be exercised only after jumping through some procedural and administrative hoops. In my own state of New York, for instance, the right to own a handgun depends on your having passed through a lengthy process of inquiry into your character and habits, carried out by the local police. In the case of voting rights, however, this whole area of discussion is blocked out by the dark shadow of literacy tests.

Literacy tests for voters used to be widespread. They were used in some parts of New York State, for example, until 1970. In the Jim Crow South, however, they were much abused to prevent African Americans from voting. Literacy tests were sometimes waived altogether for illiterate whites, while a black voter might be asked to construe a page of Chaucer. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively put an end to these abuses. It did not explicitly outlaw literacy tests, only made them subject to federal clearance; but the bad publicity generated by all the unfair practices drove literacy tests out of fashion.

This is a shame. The case for absolutely universal adult suffrage is not a strong one. I have always thought that the property qualification, as used in Britain until 1918, had much to be said for it. The poll tax, too — charging people to vote — seems no more unreasonable than the fee I pay for my pistol license, though the phrase "poll tax" is in the same kind of odium as "literacy test," for the same kinds of reasons. In Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, only those who had performed voluntary military service were allowed to vote — another quite defensible restriction, I think.

Given the restraints imposed by our Constitution, and the sensibilities of our age, I doubt whether any of these limits on the right to vote could be adopted in the United States of today. Still, I should like to make a modest proposal for a form of voting restriction that I believe might pass muster with the broad American public.

First let me note that as well as being too dumb to vote, you can also be too smart to vote. People of very high intelligence are especially susceptible to large abstract theories about society. They live lives, and think thoughts, that put a wide gulf between themselves and the generality of citizens. Carry out the following thought experiment. Suppose that in, say, 1920 the U.S. franchise had been limited to citizens holding a Ph.D. What would the consequences have been? Is there any doubt that we should have had a Soviet America in very short order, and that we should right now be digging ourselves out of the same pit the poor Russians find themselves in?

It seems to me, in fact, that political stupidity is a special kind of stupidity, not well correlated with other kinds. At the very highest levels of intelligence, the correlation may actually be inverse: the more brilliant you are, the dumber your politics. Albert Einstein seems to have thought well of Stalin; Hitlerism got its first mass following in the highly-selective German universities. And think — without smiling, if you can — of the barmy political programs that issued forth, with such confidence, from Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer and other members of the mid-20th-century preposterentsia, as exposed in withering detail in Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals.

The relationship between intelligence and political orientation is a promising field of inquiry, not much studied. Up to a point, education makes you more conservative. Exit poll data shows that the 5 per cent of the electorate who did not graduate from high school went 59-39 for Al Gore on November 7th; the 24 per cent who graduated from college went 51-45 for Bush. So far, so good. Somewhere along the educational spectrum, however, this trend reverses. A friend who works at Cold Spring Harbor lab — a high-powered research center for biology and genetics — told me at the time of the 1994 mid-term sweep by Republican candidates for Congress that his fellow researchers were "all in tears" about it. Similarly, an acquaintance who teaches math at a prominent northeastern university, a keen Gore voter himself, told an e-mail forum I belong to that among his colleagues it is "damn near impossible to find anyone who doesn't puke at the prospect of a Dubya regime."

In the matter of intelligence, therefore, the American electorate follows the ancient pattern of "bottom and top against the middle." The petty gentry who were the lowest class of voters in pre-industrial England — people like Squire Western in Tom Jones — allied themselves with Crown and Church against the Whig aristocracy and merchant elites. Just so, the bottom layer of American society looks to the Clintonoid New Class elites to protect those government programs without which, both have come to believe, the poor would starve.

The New Class respond in an appropriately paternalistic fashion. Asked in the last week of October if he would be taking a pre-election break, President Clinton replied: "I'll stay here to Election Day, if I have to, to do right by the American people, because my first job is to take care of them." We are not very far removed here from the response of the late Premier Chou En-lai when a Chinese interviewer asked him whether he regretted having had no children: "All the people of China are my children." If you were to put into a corral all those citizens who see nothing wrong with such a statement, and into another corral all those who felt their bile rising at the sickening, arrogant condescension of it, you would have a near-perfect division into liberals and conservatives. To most Republicans, the occupant of the White House is an elected official temporarily in charge of one of the three branches of our government. To large numbers of Democrats, including apparently the current occupant himself, he is what the Russian Tsar used to be styled: "Little Father of the Peoples."

We thus have a voter-intelligence problem at both ends of the bell curve. Millions of citizens are too stupid to vote; some millions of others are too full of credentialled arrogance to be trusted with any political power at all. The solution seems plain: IQ-test everyone who registers to vote, then remove both tails of the bell curve from the electoral rolls. Those too dimwitted to cope with a multi-page ballot ought not have the vote: neither ought those who, feeling that their armful of academic credentials is sufficient proof of their moral superiority, believe they have a license to organize the lives of the rest of us.

Taking out both tails neutralizes the race issue, since for every minority over-represented at one end of the distribution there is a majority, or a different minority, over-represented at the other. See how neat this is?

If we chopped off at two standard deviations from the mean, we should have disenfranchised four per cent of the adult population — about eight million people. If that seems too many, we could take the cutoff points to three standard deviations in each direction, depriving only 0.2 per cent of the electorate — the borderline retarded and the intellectual superstars, about 400,000 souls. Assuming that these far-out extremes of the IQ distribution all voted Democrat, that would be enough to have reversed Al Gore's margin in the November 7th popular vote. See? The Stupid Party we may be, but I see no reason why our electoral successes should be at the mercy of stupid voters.