Blackstone wrote that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.  Fortescue wrote “one would much rather that twenty guilty persons should escape the punishment of death, than that one innocent person should be condemned and suffer capitally.”  Maimonides wrote “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” I don’t know what the correct number is (10, 20, 1000), but I do think that some such maxim is correct.

Bear these maxims in mind when thinking about voter fraud and voter suppression. The state has systems in place to prevent ineligible voters from voting fraudulently.  These systems, however, suppress eligible voters.  How stringent should these anti-fraud systems be?  If they are too lax, too many ineligible voters will vote.  If they are too strict, then too many eligible voters will be unable to vote.

I do not know what the right answer is, but consider this principle: “it is better that one ineligible voter vote fraudulently than that one eligible voter is suppressed.”  I think that this is true.  I also suspect that any radically different principle is false.  That is, it is not true that it is better that ten ineligible voters vote fraudulently than that one eligible voter is suppressed; and, it is not true that it is better that one ineligible voter vote fraudulently than that ten eligible voters are suppressed.  But these are suspicions, and I am eager to learn what others think.


3 Replies to “Voter Fraud and Voter Suppression

  1. I think a further point in support of your claim is to think about who would be voting illegally. Casting aside those who may be voting twice, those who may be legally ineligible to vote may be morally entitled to vote. If someone is living in the US without documentation, they are subject to laws/representation over which they have no formal rights. This is a point Michael Walzer long ago criticized in Spheres of Justice as being incompatible with liberal democratic norms. If they’ve been stripped of voting rights, a similar argument can may be applicable. The chief worry would be that a huge number of foreigners could enter and swing elections to further their own country’s policy goals, but that seems too implausible (for lots of reasons).

  2. The goal of an election is to make a decision which is representative of the electorate. Any voting rights given to individuals are designed to achieve that goal. Violation of those rights should be considered not in relation to the person who lost them, but in the context of the overarching goal.

    Thus, the the proposed rule is not unequivocally useful. It depends on the distributions of election choices in the group whose right to vote was suppressed and in the group who voted fraudulently. It is conceivable that the distribution of choices in the former is similar to the whole population while in the latter it is skewed. In such case, applying the proposed rule would lead to the violation of the representativity goal.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post Eric! I suppose I am inclined to treat the imprisonment cases symmetrically. That is, if not giving someone their just deserts is a bad-making feature of a situation, then I am inclined to think that ceteris paribus it’s just as bad for an innocent person to be imprisoned as it is for a guilty person to go free. I realize this is not a widely shared view and I can see the intuitive pull of treating the cases asymmetrically. But cannot think of a plausible principled reason that could justify the asymmetry, apart from denying that anyone deserves to suffer. That might be the way to go.

    While, I am inclined to deny the asymmetry in the imprisonment cases, I am inclined to accept it in the voting case. What is the relevant difference? Well, when an eligible voter is denied their vote, I assume they’re harmed. They presumably feel angry that they are being prevented from exercising their legal (and they may think moral) right of theirs. The harm they suffer is bad. Moreover, I presume that they’re generally angrier, more indignant, or more hurt than an ineligible voter would be when prevented from voting.

    Now, when an ineligible voter votes, I doubt they’re harming anyone. One vote won’t make a difference to the outcome of the election and an ineligible voter voting should not cause anyone to suffer, assuming no one finds out that the person in question voted illegally. Of course, large groups of ineligible voters voting can make a difference to the outcome of elections. But so can large groups of eligible voters being denied their right to vote. I think that happened in the 2000 presidential election. My understanding is that more eligible voters are denied the right to vote than ineligible voters are able to vote. Loosening the laws (e.g. eliminating voter ID laws) wouldn’t, I think, change this. We could enact laws that will foreseeably result in more ineligible voters managing to vote, but will also result in a comparatively greater number of eligible voters voting. That seems clearly better to me than the status quo.

Comments are closed.