Taking away the right to vote.

As Winston Churchill once famously repeated, “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Democrats are frustrated when poor Southerners vote against their interests, and when Naderites swing an election. Republicans are frustrated with Ron Paul siphoning votes from the establishment. As a Salon.com article concisely summarized:

For starters, they know nothing about government or current events. They can’t follow arguments of any complexity. They stuff themselves with slogans and advertisements. They eschew fact for myth. They operate from biases and stereotypes, and they privilege feeling over thinking. The result is a political system of daunting irrationality, and rational people like Rick Shenkman are paying the cost.

In an ideal world, we can imagine a system where only the qualified are given the right to vote. The experts, the followers of current events, the readers of newspapers, the practitioners of the scientific method (though sadly this would be controversial), the level-headed and rational college of cardinal citizens. This group would be large enough to achieve the critical mass of “wisdom of the crowds” and stay small enough to exclude the unworthy. It’s not hard to conclude that this system would lead to better outcomes and smarter decisions, and in fact it’s why we have a limited form of it already: a facet of our having a representative democracy reflects a fear of pure democracy.

Of course, the problem with this is obvious. Coming up with a system to selectively exclude people is difficult, if not impossible, particularly with the legacy of Jim Crow in this country. How smart do you have to be? How do you verify your qualifications and attention to news and history? Who is designing this test, and how is it administered? Any system for discriminating between the worthy and the unworthy would be rife with corruption and a bias toward the values of the designers. For practical purposes, it can’t and won’t be done.

Yet the right to suffrage is not universal, and it’s not unalienable. Some groups already lack the right to vote. Children, of course, don’t have the right to vote because they are deemed emotionally and intellectually immature. We don’t grant the right to vote to foreign nationals, non-citizens, and convicted felons (in some places even when they are released from prison). Society judges, I think correctly, that these latter individuals may not vote with the interest of society in mind. There are probably anti-government wackos in the general population as well, but these individuals have more clearly conflicting incentives, or have demonstrated through their actions that they don’t respect societal welfare. They are clearly unqualified to vote.

This post isn’t actually advocating taking the right to vote away from normal citizens. I actually want to talk a bit about baseball, and a situation where we can demonstrate people clearly lack the capacity to vote correctly, or lack the honesty to do so. Read on.

Yesterday Randy Johnson announced his retirement, ending an illustrious 22-year MLB career. He is second on the all-time strikeouts list to Nolan Ryan, at 4875. His K/9, a bit of a modern statistic, is 1st all-time, indicating he was not only dominant because of his longevity but because he had great “stuff” period. He achieved the 300-win plateau that is the pitcher’s equivalent of 3000 hits for batters. He won 5 Cy Young awards (in the AL and NL) and made 10 All-Star teams. He pitched a no-hitter, a perfect game, and was awarded a World Series MVP. He ended with a career 3.29 ERA and showcased a slew of sub-3.00 years.

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and 75% of the vote gets you in (you need at least 5% of the vote to stay on the ballot for future years). Untainted by a steroids scandal, Randy Johnson is a sure-fire lock for the Hall of Fame, and by rights, I’d argue he’s almost certainly a First Ballot Hall-of-Famer. But I’d also bet that he won’t be a unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame (probably because PETA hates him). In fact, no one has ever been an unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame, first ballot or otherwise.

There’s a debate on whether some players deserve to go on the first ballot, versus being elected on later years. A lot of people think it’s silly to say, “I think he’s good enough to be a Hall of Famer and will vote for him next year, but not this year” but every year baseball writers use this logic. The great Joe DiMaggio, for example, wasn’t elected on his first ballot. I’m ambivalent about the first-ballot debate. Perhaps that’s one way of differentiating borderline entrants. I’m more concerned with the clear creme de la creme.

I think baseball writers either vote against their objective beliefs when they fail to choose a clear first ballot Hall of Famer, or are plain stupid. Who were the idiots who failed to vote for Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan, who both garnered over 98% of the vote on the first ballot? Who were the disgruntled hold-outs from Hank Aaron, and George Brett? Who were the 8 who didn’t vote for Cal Ripken two years ago (he’s missing from the chart, but was elected with 98.53%, now 3rd highest)?

Do these people deserve to have a vote anymore? Baseball is a highly statistical game; almost every element of performance is measured, from the prosaic earned run average (ERA) and batting average (BA), to the esoteric value over replacement player (VORP) and defense-independent pitching statistic (DIPS). The Hall of Fame is essentially an indication of being at the Xth percentile of baseball performance. If you exceed your competitors in statistical categories, you are better than them, and if you better your contemporaries in several by a lot, you’re in consideration for the Hall of Fame. But then there are those who are truly the historical best. When Nolan Ryan is #1 on the all-time strikeouts list (and at the time of his retirement, he was in the lead by over a 1500 Ks), should there be any question of whether he deserves to be elected on the first ballot? Tom Seaver ended with over 300 wins and an incredible sub-3.00 career ERA. What rationale could possibly have justified not voting for him on the first ballot?

These baseball voters who are so far from the mainstream have either demonstrated themselves to be clearly incompetent, or clearly voting against the system. They should lose their right to vote along with the comatose and anti-social felons in our normal democracy. They are unqualified to continue voting for the Hall of Fame, and deserve to be shamed and disenfranchised. The Baseball Writers Association of America should strip the right to vote for future Hall of Fame ballots from writers in the minority when over 95% (we can haggle about the exact number) of other writers thought the player in question should have gotten in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I also wouldn’t mind a revelation of the names of those who voted in the minority so their readers could know just what small-minded shams they are.

In normal practice we often don’t have a way of determining objective right and wrong decisions, or a quantitative standard for who should get to vote. At least for the Baseball Hall of Fame, however, we can clearly see who should get their right to vote taken away. With Randy Johnson, a clear statistical first-ballot Hall of Famer coming up in a few years, it’s time to implement this policy.



Bill Simmons mocks the year-to-year waffling of baseball writers.


3 thoughts on “Taking away the right to vote.

  1. David, I can see where you’re coming from, but I think you’ve taken it a bit far.

    First, when you say “The Hall of Fame is essentially an indication of being at the Xth percentile of baseball performance”, I think you’re jumping the gun a little bit. Yes, Statistics are often front-and-center in Hall of Fame debates, but there is clearly a more subjective element in the decision that takes into account the overall context of the player (and of course, the biases of the voter). Baseball has always loved its statistics, but there has always been an older, grittier type of evaluation by those life-long devotees who judge players based on the countless games they’ve watched over the years.

    After all, if a guy like Phil Rizzuto can make the Hall of Fame (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rizzuph01.shtml?redir) clearly, there is something rather anti-statistical about the whole thing. Should THOSE voters be banned for lowering the standards of the Hall of Fame?

    Similarly, I think a given person might have any number of reasons not to allow people in on the first ballot. Nolan Ryan, after all, led the leagues in walk EIGHT times (he’s all-time career leader, too) and was only slightly better than a .500 pitcher over his career (.526 career winning percentage). Obviously, his strikeouts and longevity make him a shoe-in (and his seven no hitters), but what if a writer thinks a guy who NEVER won the Cy Young award might not merit first-ballot entry? You may not agree with him, but I think there’s at least room for discussion.

    Ultimately, I think the system works pretty well. Sports writers are indeed more qualified to vote than most general fans, and there are enough of them that the right decision seems to be generally made. I can’t think of any obvious Hall of Famers who have been left out. And in any case, it’s also good to remember that there is also the “Veterans Committee” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veterans_Committee) that acts as a safeguard if the writers ever screw someone over. I think the Hall of Fame system works fine.

    Now, if we could just take away the vote from Southerners…

  2. This is only tangentially related to your post, but I think you will find it to be interesting. In case you don’t want to read the whole post, I’ve summarized the most interesting stuff.


    The way the NFL selects the MVP is a bit odd. There are 50 voters for the NFL MVP most of whom work as major national sportswriters. The goal is to create a pool of educated writers who watch a great deal of different teams each week. The problem is that 21 of the voters are locked into to one particular market and are contractually obligated to cover all of “their” team’s games for a season. They can then also watch other games if they choose to.

    The problem is that certain divisions and markets are over-represented. For example, the AFC East has one voter for each team, while the AFC south has only one voter (Houston Texans). The greater familiarity with “your” player could lead to error.

    For example, in the 2003 MVP race Steve McNair and Manning tied. In that year, TN had a designated reporter (who had a vote) that cast his vote for Steve McNair. Indiana did not have a designated reporter with a MVP vote.

    I highly doubt that Manning loses the MVP. But, it will be interesting to see if there is a close victory by Darelle Revis (AFC-East 4 teams) over Charles Woodson (NFC North, 2 reporters) for defensive player of the year.

  3. Pingback: Citizens United v. FEC « stone soup

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