Recently, during a speech about middle-class economics in Ohio, Obama sent chills down Republican spines when he seemed to endorse mandatory voting. What he actually said was, “In Australia and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money (and increase turnout) more than anything.”
His statement comes after an embarrassingly low turnout for the 2014 midterms, which gravely injured Democrats. That year, only 36.3 percent of the electorate cast a ballot. This type of abysmal performance has been a continuing trend in midterm elections dating all the way back to before the 1920s. Even if Obama were endorsing the policy, mandatory voting wouldn’t fix it.
There are many reasons people don’t vote, but for a vast number it’s because they don’t understand enough about politics or simply don’t care. While I think it’s unfortunate that so many squander this right, forcing people to march to the polls would result in millions of new voters casting ballots for candidates they know very little, if anything, about. A better solution would be to increase the accessibility of information detailing candidates positions on policy, on policy issues themselves and educate voters about exactly how and why their vote matters.
But not only does mandatory voting assume people are well-informed about politics, it assumes they have nothing to do on election day, the first Tuesday in November. Granted, at least its not a Monday, but still, penalizing people who can’t get out of work skews the brunt of the penalties toward the lower class.
What we really need to be asking is, why a Tuesday? Traditionally it’s because in 1845, Congress passed a bill aimed at making the voting day universal. Back then, it took a day or longer to reach a county poll and a day to get back. Wednesday was a market day for farmers, and traveling on the weekend was impractical due to the Sabbath. So Tuesday it was, but we’re not limited by these factors today, so why don’t we just change it to, say, the first Saturday in November? This would drastically increase turnout without penalties.
Another problem with instituting mandatory voting is our political culture. Americans hate being told they have to do something. It ties in with our concept of freedom — if someone doesn’t want to vote, they should have the freedom not to.
Additionally, mandatory voting completely ignores simple electoral changes that would ultimately be more effective. For instance, if states were to allow absentee ballots, online voting, universal voter registration (shout out to Oregon), voter information letters and the abolishment of Voter ID laws along with other discriminatory practices, voter turnout would instantly increase.
But, the biggest flaw in terms of mandatory voting is that it doesn’t address the root reason many people refuse to vote: the idea that their voice doesn’t matter, that neither party represents them or that campaign finance drives policy positions once a candidate is elected. This could be solved by long-shot electoral reforms such as multi-member districts and proportional representation. This would make it easier for a third party to emerge, which would, in turn, allow more citizens to feel more of their interests are being represented. You could also do away with the electoral college, which would force presidential candidates to focus on all 50 states instead of the 10 they are currently obsessed over, reinforcing the idea that every vote counts. And lastly, Congress could write legislation to reform campaign finance. This is extremely unlikely to happen, but if it did, it would curb the belief of many that politicians are pawns of big money interests.
In the end it would be foolish — completely illogical even — of us to adopt a penalizing voting regulation like this one without first solving the basic reasons Americans can’t, or won’t, show up to the polls.
Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @hazeltonpaul.