Media Rants: For Compulsory Voting
For Compulsory Voting
By Tony Palmeri
The day after the September primary, Gannett’s Appleton Post-Crescent reported that “A projected record turnout of voters in Tuesday's election never materialized as only about 1 in 5 eligible voters cast ballots.” The 19 percent turnout fell short of the Government Accountability Board’s 28 percent prediction, which would’ve been the highest since 1964.
Nationally, the professional punditocracy insists that Tea Party activism and anger at Obama energizes Republican voters. Yet “record” turnouts in partisan primaries remained abysmally low; in some states a whopping 10 percent participation. If turnout nationally in the November midterm elections reaches 50 percent, professional election watchers will consider that “high.”
Even though voting in presidential elections has been on the increase, the 61 Percent turnout that brought Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 still fell short of the 64 percent in 1908 that propelled portly William Howard Taft over Bible thumping William Jennings Bryan. Is it not astonishing that in 100 years we have never had more than 64 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for the highest office in the land?
Let’s face it: voter turnout in the United States, the country calling itself the greatest representative democracy in the world, is an international embarrassment. Elected federal officials wield immense power, yet low vote totals rarely provide them with a clear mandate to govern in any particular policy direction. In some ways the situation is worse at the local level: officials who set your property tax rates, (de)fund your child’s school, and approve crazy corporate welfare schemes usually get elected on the strength of less than 20 percent voter turnout.
But the lack of a mandate to govern is only one negative effect of low turnout. Over the last 20 or 30 years we’ve seen the makings of something much more nefarious. The sophistication and refinement of market research techniques now allow political operatives on the Democratic and Republican sides to discover quite easily what the “likely voter” wants to hear, and then tailor messages to that group. In a system dominated by petty partisan political hacks, what candidates stand for is always secondary to the need to “get our voters to the polls.” The result, always, are campaigns long on schmoozing and short on issue specifics, with obnoxious telephone, Email, and snail mail reminders to “get out and vote” for candidates so tightly scripted they might as well be running for a seat on the screen actors’ guild board of directors.
The system of political hackery is aided and abetted by the fact that in the USA voting is conceived of not as a duty of citizenship, but as a civil right that adults can choose not to use. Unfortunately, the system of voluntary voting isn’t working; we need a dramatic rethinking of citizenship expectations.
Think about it: if a person responded to a jury duty summons by saying, “I don’t feel like serving, “ or “I don’t care about the justice system,” or “I’m not well informed,” or “I don’t like the prosecution or defense,” we would laugh. We compel people not only to serve on juries, but to educate their children, pay taxes, and even keep their lawns trimmed. Oddly, we don’t compel people to have to go out and vote in elections the results of which will determine what kind of justice, education, taxation, and public works programs we have.
More than 30 countries require citizens to vote. In places like Brazil and Australia, voter turnout is well over 90 percent and thus the results more accurately reflect the “will of the electorate.” In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva comes from a personal background of extreme poverty and stands for a set of leftist ideals that make USA liberal Democrats look like Rush Limbaugh. Right wing, corporatist leaders can and do get elected in places with compulsory voting (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is one example), but at least no one can argue it’s because voters stayed home. In the USA, they merely need to spend lots of cash hiring field organizers, make large media buys to propagate mindless advertisements, and pay for other “get out the vote” activities.
The major arguments against compulsory voting are that it infringes on liberty, “ignorant” people will be forced to vote, and that there’s no one worth voting for. Let’s address each in turn.
First, non-voting has infringed on our liberties much more than a compulsory voting system ever could. The greatest assaults on our liberties, from the Espionage Act of World War I to McCarthy era mania to the post 9/11 homeland security excesses, were all put in place by elected officials who had no clear electoral mandate.
As for “ignorant” voters, they exist prominently in our current system. A compulsory system of voting results in more issue based elections; perhaps we’d see a drop in ignorance.
For voters who feel there is no one worth voting for, commentators from Ralph Nader on the left to the editorial page of the Wall St. Journal have argued that there ought be a “none of the above” option on the ballot. I agree.
It will probably be years before we see a serious discussion of compulsory voting. Until then, please VOTE!