A Vote

[This entry has been cross posted at Ordinary Times]

Voting presupposes that there is a vote to cast, and casting presupposes that there is more than one option for which to vote. If there’s just one option, then rather than voting you’re a participant in a boring but solemn exercise in standing in line.

There are no set rules to what organizations can organize a voting process, so there are no set rules that make a choice a vote other than that it be a choice. The He Man Woman Haters Club may allow only loveable little scamps with distinctive hair or features to vote so long as they are not named Darla or otherwise identifiable as female. A group of guys who watch football together on fall Saturdays may not let Jeremy vote on what toppings they’ll get on their pizza order because he bums everybody’s beer and has poor toilet aim. You can discriminate, not discriminate, enfranchise, disfranchise, or even disenfranchise to your heart’s content and still call a choice between options a vote. Let Jeremy say that the results are illegitimate and that anchovies are the umami of the oppressor all day long. The point is that he is saying that without his inclusion the vote is tainted. What he is not saying is that it wasn’t a vote.

The rules regarding legitimate voting are up to the organization bound by the results or up to a senior organization that oversees the entity conducting the result. There are all manner of unseemly things one can do to influence a vote that may be perfectly within the rules. Jeremy can offer Bill five bucks to vote pepperoni, Darla can ask Alfalfa to sit next to her at the soap box derby, a voter can take or leave whatever enticements or advice is offered so long as the rules allow, or maybe more importantly do not disallow, them.

Most official voting will not be so loose. Often there will be consequences for meddlings such as bribery, intimidation, or submitting fraudulent votes. Private organizations may have fines or other penalties. Expulsion or suspension is not off the table. Public elections will carry real penalties – things like jail and fines you can’t avoid by quitting like you could in a private organization, and, depending on the results of previous votes, you might even lose your head.

In our public votes we have some gray areas regarding the extent and form of bribery and exerting influence we will allow.

I can’t find the quote I want so forgive the probably correctly attributed paraphrase, but I think it was P.J. O’Rourke (I’d appreciate a word if I’m wrong) who wrote that in the United States, rather than a democracy or a republic we have a system in which incumbents borrow money from the Chinese to buy votes from Americans and then expect our grandchildren to make good on the loan. That’s an apt description.

We draw a distinction between “Here’s twenty bucks if you vote for me,” and “If you vote for me, I’ll forgive your student loan debt and let you keep tens of thousands of dollars you would have otherwise had to part with and that’s not even counting interest.” The former will get you in all manner of trouble while the latter will get you the under forty-nine-year-old middle class turning out in droves. It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.

An occasionally-poorly reasoned Washington Post “Analysis” by Stephen L. Carter makes the observation that “A public promise of cash payments to a large number of voters isn’t illegal; a private promise of money just to me would be. As the legal scholar Pamela Karlan memorably put it, candidates are allowed to buy votes wholesale but not retail.”

You and I are allowed to exert non-coercive, non-threatening pressure on our elected officials. We can encourage others to pitch in and give us a hand too. Letter writing campaigns are probably too passe for today’s computer savvy citizenry but I think an intern telling the office lackey who tells the aide who tells the campaign manager that the lobby is filled with letters from angry voters would do more to alter the office holder’s mental calculus than if that same intern sent a text to his on again off again girlfriend noting how many voters’ e-mails he just deleted. Phone in campaigns were probably effective when you could tie up the office lines and make it nearly impossible for the campaign staff to call in tee times and dinner reservations for their boss, but now that almost all business is done on cell phones with unlisted numbers the staff can carry on insuring that the perks of power flow in the right direction as phones with the ringer turned to mute steer comments to a voicemail account that will soon become the subject of another text from an intern to his on again off again girlfriend.

You can also offer enticements in order to gain direct access (note that money for access is not money for a vote.) A high enough dollar amount donated to his campaign might get you an evening in a large room with the official where after your dinner of salad with mandarin oranges, chicken or fish in beurre blanc, haricot verts, and whipped potatoes all set off by California valley floor chardonnay you can stand in line with all the other Paladin Tier contributors for your twenty-five second photo op with the big guy. At the end of the night you can cast aside the bedsheets, so warmed are you by the thought that you impressed on your representative the importance of voting yeah on H.R. 35… or was it 53? Dammit. Back on go the bedsheets. But you can get access. More money will get you more access, but you can get it for free too. There is nothing wrong with telling a candidate what you want or think should be done regarding a vote anytime. You can try to catch their ear on the street or at a rally and hope to get through the din. Good luck with that, but it’s cheaper than getting ignored in a flag festooned catered ballroom.

There’s also nothing wrong with an official soliciting voting advice from any number of people whether those he asks are experts or not, whether they are constituents or not. Despite admonishments by some to keep religion out of politics, a vote can be influenced by any corner of conscience the voter deems relevant.

Actual coercion is banana republic nonsense. In theory we don’t tolerate that here. There will always be consequences to voting yeah or nay: you may lose friends, donors, coalitions, and elections. At the national level, if you really screw up you may lose the expected cable news sinecure. People are allowed to react to what you do provided they break no laws in doing so. What is absolutely not acceptable is the threat of government action for voting one way or another in a government sanctioned vote.

A member of a legislative body must have the option to vote either way on every issue brought before that body or on every issue which regularly requires the acquiescence of that body without threat of legal recriminations. Otherwise, the casting of a ballot ceases to be a vote and becomes a part of a pageant validating someone’s rubber stamp. If only one choice is allowed, why go through the motions of choosing? That’s pretty simple and straightforward.

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