A recent Pew poll found that 46 percent of Millennials believe that a technocracy where unelected experts would make policy decisions rather than elected officials is preferable to democracy. These young people give so little value to their ability to have a say in their governance that they would cede their future to unaccountable bureaucrats. In some ways, that has happened during the current pandemic with people such as Fauci and bureaucracies like the CDC dictating how we live and where we can go. Perhaps it is time to rethink our notions of who should vote.
Our Founding Fathers never saw voting as a right. Rather, they viewed it as a privilege and a civic duty. Under the original version of the Constitution, slaves and women were excluded, and — by common practice — so were felons and mental defectives. However, the Founders also understood that times and attitudes would change; consequently, they made provisions to adjust the privilege of franchise through constitutional amendments. After the Civil War, former slaves got the vote, and women finally achieved suffrage following World War I. It was not until the 1960s that the word “right” was tied to voting by congressional action.
Many state legislatures believe that things have now gone too far. Mail-in ballots are allowing people to vote who are so stupid that they could not find their way to a polling place even if provided a navigation app. Voting is beginning to resemble mob rule. The next logical — or more correctly, illogical — step will be voting online.
Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a 1950s novel about a society where people did not become voters or even citizens until they had performed a term of service to the state. In Starship Troopers, service meant time in the military. Service was voluntary, but only those who volunteered and were honorably discharged would receive citizenship and the privilege to vote, and could hold public office. Those who opted out remained residents with all the rights now afforded under our present Constitution, except the right to choose governmental leaders and participate in governance themselves. In Heinlein’s world, the likes of the Clintons, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump would be limited to operating the private sector.
Heinlein’s approach would not work in our society. We simply do not need the size of a military force that would be required to support his vision. The Israelis have near-universal service and are having a hard time finding the money to accommodate training and productive work for the large numbers of soldiers.
Perhaps it is time to consider requiring 18-year-olds to do a year of public service before granting them full citizenship and franchise. Those who choose not to do a term of service would go about their lives as tax-paying residents. A resident could choose at any future time to reconsider and do the service required to become a citizen.
There are plenty of service opportunities outside of the military. Most of them are minimum-wage jobs, such as nurses’ aids, nursing home attendants, and teachers in literacy programs. The recently passed infrastructure legislation will require many low-skill positions to augment the heavy-equipment jobs needed to build roads and repair bridges. Thus, the program would provide jobs to industries that might otherwise have a hard time filling strenuous, low-paying positions. There would be no racial, sexual, or medical bars to service. Those with physical disabilities would be particularly useful. The blind could help teach brail and the deaf could mentor in sign language.
Military service would also be a road to citizenship and franchise, but the term of service should remain at three to four years with the same rate of pay as at present. Modern warfare requires at least a year of training in the skills required. Another couple of years are needed to become truly proficient in this age of high-tech combat. When a military member successfully completes the first year of his or her service, citizenship and the privilege to vote would be granted. The same should hold true with the reserves and the National Guard.
One thing that the military draft did right was to force the intermixing of social classes. When conscription was in place, the Kennedys were forced to work side-by-side with the people raised in Brooklyn tenements and those of the likes of George H.W. Bush rubbed elbows with hillbillies from Tennessee and West Virginia; that doesn’t happen much anymore.
It would take an amendment to the Constitution to make this proposal work, and that is unlikely. However, an initiative to make such an amendment happen might well stir up enough debate to make many people re-examine what it means to be a citizen. I have a relative who openly disdains the Pledge of Allegiance and respect for the flag. She has never done a thing for her country, but she votes. Perhaps the possibility that her children would have to work for citizenship might — for once in her life — cause her to ponder what citizenship really means.
Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.