Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 794: Should Professors Make Voting Mandatory for Students?

In an article published recently, Drew University English Professor Merrill Skaggs explained why she felt justified in making it a requirement in one of her classes that students register and vote. She wrote that she was dismayed to learn that only 37 percent of college students had voted in the 2000 presidential election. From that, Skaggs concluded that if students participated in elections in greater numbers, they had “the capacity to swing an election.” But because relatively few students vote, candidates do not “bother to address student issues thoroughly.”

Feeling the need to do something, Skaggs hit upon the idea of requiring all of her English students to vote. Although she tosses in such bromides as “citizenship comes first” (quoting a martial arts instructor who required all of his students to register and vote), she makes no effort to conceal the fact that her motivation was personal: “For me, making what I myself could consider a meaningful gesture was the important thing — the personal satisfaction of finding something I could do.”

So is this a good thing to do? Should professors across the country adopt Skaggs’ idea and make voting mandatory? Is this a laudable attempt to promote good citizenship — or an indefensible abuse of power for personal satisfaction?

I take the latter view.

The job of an English professor is to teach English. That’s it. Adding nonacademic requirements to a course is objectionable, no matter how important the professor may believe them to be. Suppose that another English professor who believes passionately that students need to get in better physical shape (for their own benefit, and also to reduce the strain that overweight, sickly people put on our semi-socialist health-care system) mandates that in order to pass the course, all students must be able to run a mile in less than eight minutes. Undoubtedly, that would be a “meaningful gesture” in the war against obesity. True, getting in shape for the run would take a lot more time from the students than registering and voting, but that’s a difference only in degree, not in kind.

Such a fitness requirement would be roundly condemned as none of the professor’s business. I can see no reason to regard a voting requirement differently.

Skaggs tells us that she agonized over the decision and consulted many of her colleagues. A number of them thought the idea of mandatory voting was “totalitarian.” But then she learned that Australia has a law that requires voting and punishes citizens who don’t. Since, she writes, “Australia is not normally considered totalitarian,” that clinched it.

Logicians will quickly see a problem here — the fallacy of division. That is the logical error in concluding that because X is true of the whole, X must also be true for all its constituent parts. Let us agree with the premise “Australia is not a totalitarian nation.” Does it follow that “No law enacted by Australia is totalitarian?”

No, it doesn’t. The morality of each law must be evaluated independently. To my way of thinking, punishing people for choosing not to participate in an election is about as bad a victimless crime law as you’ll find. The fact that Australia has mandatory voting doesn’t serve as a justification for American professors to impose a voting requirement on their students.

There are a number of good reasons why an individual might choose to remain uninvolved in the political process. For one, there is the well-known “lesser of two evils” problem. Many people realize that there are grounds for objecting to both (or all) of the candidates for an office. Since you can’t register your approval of individual positions candidates take, but instead have to vote for one entire candidate bundle or another, some citizens prefer not to lend their sanction to the system by voting for someone whom they do not trust to represent their interests or protect their rights.

Probably the most common reason why people choose not to vote is that they don’t think it will make any difference in their lives.

Skaggs opines that “it’s time for students to seize their power.”

Alas, the chief problem with the United States is rooted in groups “seizing their power” and using the political system to help them get what they want, inevitably at the expense of others.

With her “you must vote because I say so” attitude, she has set a bad example and given a small boost to the authoritarianism she thinks she’s combating.