It has surely escaped your notice that Australia is staging a national election on Sept. 7. I mention this only because the Aussies have a creative way of ensuring that the election results truly reflect the will of the people. They do this by mandating that every adult citizen show up to vote.
We should do that.
Yeah I know, it would never happen here. Mandatory voting would require a constitutional amendment, and since America is invariably Number One in every way, we’d never ever deign to adopt an idea popularized by another western democracy. But a boy can dream, right?
And this is a perfect time for a late-summer reverie because not much is happening in domestic politics. Congress is taking a long break from doing nothing, and the ostensibly big stories are rather small. The Missouri rodeo clown who wears an Obama mask got invited to ply his trade in Texas, a Hooters restaurant in San Diego is refusing to serve Mayor Bob Filner (the chain that markets boobs and butts apparently draws the line at groping), 20 Tea Party groups have crafted a letter that declares (I swear this is true) that “our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship”—that kind of dross.
So what the heck, let’s just play today with the notion of mandatory voting. Thirty-one countries have it; roughly half back it up with enforcement power. Australia is Exhibit A. You show up to vote—or you get in trouble. According to the rules, all abstainers are required to tell the Australian Electoral Commission why they didn’t vote—either that, or pay a fine (roughly $20). If abstainers fail to respond within 21 days, they could wind up in court with a stiffer fine (roughly $50).
Australia has enforced this policy since 1925. Ever since, the turnout rate in national Aussie elections (participating voters, as a share of the voting-age population) has averaged a whopping 95 percent. That’s a tad better than the turnout rate in U.S. presidential elections. We’ve lately averaged 57 percent; as recently as 1996, it was 49 percent. We did manage to top 60 percent in each of the five elections between 1952 and 1968, but it hasn’t happened since.
Granted, it’s widely deemed un-American to force Americans to do just about anything (although, as political scholar and ex-Clinton White House aide William Galston has argued, “Jury duty is mandatory—why not voting?”). It’s widely assumed that we should have the freedom to take our freedom for granted. But just imagine the possibilities:
If virtually all Americans voted, the ideological partisans in the electorate would have less clout. The way things work now, a typical candidate (goaded by the strategists) tries to maximize turnout from his or her base, and tries to minimize turnout from the opponent’s base. This is done by pandering to one’s own base and running negative attack ads that dampen enthusiasm within the opponent’s base.
As a result, middle-of-the-road, non-ideological Americans get turned off and ignored. So they stay home on election day, in disproportionate numbers. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz says in his book “The Disappearing Center” that ideologically polarized Americans are more motivated to vote than the folks in the middle.
But in Australia, as political scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann pointed out recently: “[T]he way to gain votes does not come from working the base to a fever pitch. [It comes] from persuading the centrists—the same kinds of voters who are increasingly left out of the American political process. In Australia, a candidate appealing to the extremes is destined for failure.”
National leaders in Australia are therefore elected by virtually the entire adult population, across the board, reflecting the aggregate will of the people … as opposed to the American way—which involves only half the adult population, with ideological over-representation.
And just imagine the other perks of compulsory voting (because all we can do is imagine). For starters, the two parties and the well-heeled special interest groups would no longer need to raise and spend tens of millions of dollars to gin up voter turnout (no more labor union phone banks, no more Koch Brothers stealth money) because the voters would be pre-ginned.
But here’s the real clincher: Compulsory voting—the notion that casting a ballot is a civic responsibility and societal obligation—would effectively torpedo the far-flung Republican mission to hinder certain categories of people from voting.
Which is why the Republicans would never endorse such an idea. Oh well, it’s back to August. What’s that rodeo clown up to?
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