Maybe It's Your Civic Duty Not to Vote

Should Uninformed Voters Be Casting Their Vote on Nov. 4?


Oct. 9, 2008—

We keep hearing how important it is for everyone to vote and that voting is our civic duty.

Celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diddy and Dave Matthews urge everyone to get out and vote. And to help people vote, voter registration groups such as HeadCount deploy volunteers to sign people up.

Watch John Stossel's "Politically Incorrect Guide to Politics" at 10 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 17.

HeadCount focuses on registering young people at rock concerts and music festivals around the country. During the concerts, famous musicians such as Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson implore their fans to sign up to vote. Marc Brownstein, the bassist for the band The Disco Biscuits and a co-founder of HeadCount, tells fans to "please participate this year by casting your vote!"

Brownstein and a friend, Andy Bernstein, co-founded HeadCount in 2004.

"We do this because we want the kids to be a part of the political process," Brownstein said.

Bernstein added, "We registered over 100,000 people. ... It is so imperative that this generation's voice is heard. And they are being heard."

But are these get-out-the-vote drives entirely a good thing? "20/20" asked some newly registered young people some basic questions about our government.

Some people were knowledgeable. "There are two senators from each state, making a total of 100," one young voter said. Another knew that "the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution."

But many of the young voters didn't seem very informed. Some didn't know how many states are in the U.S. or how many senators there are. Few could explain Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling upholding abortion rights.

"Roe v. Wade is segregation maybe?" one new voter guessed.

Another asked: "Was Roe v. Wade where we declared bankruptcy?" And still another wondered, "That was about a black person and a white person?"

Brownstein said, "There's a lot of uninformed voters out there."

So should those uninformed voters just stay home?

"It's an argument that really, really smacks against everything we hold dear as Americans," Bernstein said.

"Democracy is not about taking ... the most educated portion of the society and having them decide," Brownstein said.

But could these voters' civic duty be to not vote, because they know very little?

"We don't believe it's their civic duty not to vote. We're out there telling them that it is their civic duty to vote," Brownstein said.

Maybe it's not fair to pick on kids at a rock concert. So "20/20" moved on to our nation's capital and spoke to prospective voters on the Washington Mall. Certainly people there will know more, won't they?

People were shown some pictures of prominent Americans, like John McCain and Barack Obama. Everyone recognized Obama and McCain. And maybe half the people knew who Sarah Palin was. But Joe Biden? Most didn't recognize the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Few recognized Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, yet almost everyone recognized television's Judge Judy.

"Maybe 75 percent of people can name the vice president. ... The public's knowledge of politics is shockingly low," economist Bryan Caplan said.

In his book "The Myth of the Rational Voter," Caplan argues that people who know little about our government ought to stay home on Election Day.

But aren't Americans always told it's their civic duty to vote?

"This is very much like saying, 'It's our civic duty to give surgery advice,'" Caplan said. "Now, we like to think that political issues are much less complicated than brain surgery, but many of them are pretty hard. If someone doesn't know what he's talking about, it really is better if they say, 'Look, I'm just gonna leave this in wiser hands.'"

But isn't it elitist to say only some people should vote?

"Is it elitist to say only some people should do brain surgery?" Caplan said. "The bottom line is, if you don't know what you're doing, you are not doing the country a favor by voting."

Voting is serious business. Democracy works best when people educate themselves. So maybe instead of telling people things like "Rock the Vote," these groups should say "Rock or Vote."