WHEN THE US POSTAL SERVICE pronounces something "an idea whose time has come," sensible citizens start worrying.
A few years ago, the postmaster general suggested the time had come to eliminate mail delivery on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After that notion self-destructed, the Postal Service decided the time had come to spend $6 million on a new logo. (It used to be an eagle. Now it's -- an eagle.) Last month, a slew of post offices apparently concluded that the time had come to stop carrying mail during snowstorms. And, of course, the Postal Service always thinks the hour is ripe to raise the price of stamps.
Now the latest postal brainstorm: elections by mail.
In Oregon, voters have just chosen a successor to former Senator Bob Packwood, and for the first time ever the entire congressional election was conducted by mail. There were no voting booths, no polling places, no campaign workers greeting neighbors outside the local high school. Voters could cast their ballots only by mail -- all voters, not just absentees or shut-ins.
The Postal Service, of course, was tickled to be given a monopoly over Oregon's Senate election. Tickled to the point of brazenness: It has mounted an advertising campaign to badger the rest of the country into following suit. "If voting by mail works in Oregon," it argues in the new ads, "why not in other states, or even nationwide?" It isn't exactly obvious that Americans, after more than 200 years of coming together on Election Day to publicly choose their representatives, are prepared to abolish all the traditions and rituals of voting. But the Postal Service brims with confidence: "Voting by mail is an idea whose time has come."
Let's hope not.
The great virtue of mail-in elections, according to their promoters, is that they make voting as easy as possible. Mark a ballot, lick a stamp: end of story. By dispensing with the inconvenience of actually having to go somewhere to vote, they induce more voters to participate in elections. In a country where voter turnout can sink as low as 40 percent -- so the argument runs -- anything that increases voter participation should be welcomed with open arms.
But if that's true, why not pay people to vote? That would boost turnout. Why not send government poll-takers door to door, saving voters the trouble of having to remember when Election Day falls? Better still, why not conduct elections by phone? If we put our minds to it, we could make voting for a US senator as effortless and thoughtless as ordering a Pay-Per-View movie. Wouldn't that be fine!
Contrary to populist mythology, American democracy is not suffering because too few citizens choose to vote. It is suffering because too many citizens are ignorant boobs. Yet somehow the delusion has taken hold that a commitment to democratic self-rule means coaxing apathetic numbskulls into voting. By now we have so degraded the franchise that the vote of an illiterate, unemployed, unstable high-school-dropout couch potato is deemed no less valuable than that of the president of Columbia. And we want more of these people to vote?
Phil Keisling does. He is Oregon's secretary of state and a vote-by-mail enthusiast, and he asserts that any change that makes it easier for anyone to cast a ballot is an innovation to be embraced. "I'm a believer," he burbles, "that that government is best which is governed by the most." Which would make government by mob the best government of all.
In a national survey just undertaken by The Washington Post, 54 percent of Americans could not name either of their US senators; 67 percent could not identify their US representative; and 94 percent could not name the chief justice of the United States. Only 26 percent of the public knew that senators serve six-year terms. Forty percent couldn't name the vice president, 58 percent thought more money is spent on foreign aid than on Medicare, and 46 percent didn't know that the speaker of the US House is Newt Gingrich.
This was a survey of adults, not eighth-graders. And it is not anomalous. The ignorance of ordinary Americans about their government and its workings is mind-boggling. The wonder isn't that more of them don't participate in elections. It's that anybody thinks it would be a good idea if more of them did.
Americans who take their civic duties seriously don't need to be spoon-fed their right to vote, just as they don't need to be wheedled and jollied into reading the newspaper, checking their kids' homework, or joining a church or fraternal group. They vote because elections matter to them; they are the only citizens whose votes should matter to us.
Nothing was ever valued more for being made cheap and trivial. Turning Election Day into a dumbed-down mass mailing operated by the Post Office would only accelerate the rusting of American democracy. Maybe in Oregon, where Ron Wyden has just become America's first mail-in senator, that's an idea whose time has come. Then again, Oregon now boasts a brand-new senator who can't find Bosnia on a map.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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