An excerpt from TDS co-founding editor William Galston’s contribution to a CNN forum on “mandatory voting”:
Let’s imagine a future in which Americans must vote, or face a penalty.
It’s April 2021. Media outlets around the country headlined major agreements between Democrats and Republicans on the long-stalled issues of tax and immigration reform. Commentators marveled at the momentous shift in American politics away from the polarization and gridlock of the previous two decades.
What happened? Although opinions differed, observers agreed on one key point: The decision to follow the lead of countries such as Australia and institute mandatory voting in national elections transformed the political landscape. As turnout rose from 60% to 90%, citizens with less intense partisan and ideological commitments flooded into the electorate. Campaigns could no longer prevail simply by mobilizing core supporters. Instead, they had to persuade swing voters to come their way. They soon discovered that these new voters preferred compromise to confrontation and civil discourse to scorched-earth rhetoric. Candidates who presented themselves as willing to reach across the aisle to get things done got a boost while zealots went down to defeat.
…And somewhere, James Madison was smiling. Reforming institutions to change incentives is always the most effective course, and once again it had worked.
It’s an appealing vision, one which Democratic strategist Donna Brazile supports in her contribution to the same forum:
I know some bristle at the idea of having to cast a vote, even a protest vote for Lassie. Yet, voting is the essential, central and indispensable feature of democracy. We require jury attendance, paying taxes, and public education attendance because those are also essential functions. Is voting less important?
In his Washington Monthly post on the topic, Ed Kilgore notes that Obama didn’t actually come out in support of “mandatory voting” per se, and getting a Constitutional amendment such as that passed is not going to happen anytime soon.
Kilgore is surely right. Is it possible, however, that a few blue states could experiment with economic incentives for voting? But fergawdsake, let’s not call it “mandatory” or “compulsory” voting, as do Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Dems need not let wing-nuts define the terms of debate about reforms without challenge. We’re not talking about criminal penalties for those who don’t vote.
Galston’s vision and Brazile’s point about voting as a civic duty merit more consideration, as do a range of other electoral reforms. Accepting the current low levels of voter participation is not an option.