Thursday, March 27, 2008

Election Day

So this is an idea I've been mulling over for a while now, and while I'm aware that there are flaws in it, I have to say that I think it's worth doing. Australia does it, and they seem to get along alright...

My idea stems from America's low voter turnout. Everyone knows that somewhere around 50-60% of US citizens actually vote. This is how George W. Bush got into office, basically; he took the very strong support of 30% of the country, made sure all those people voted, and then picked up about 10% of the undecideds. That only adds up to 40%, but when only two-thirds of the country vote, 40 out of 60 is 66%. (Trust me on the math here.) People aren't taking seriously their responsibility to vote--and it is a responsibility, as much as it is a right.

So let's make voting mandatory. Election days would become a federal holiday, but you would be expected, as a taxpayer, to get your butt down to the polling place and cast your vote. Obviously, this is going to create a bit of a demand on the system, which is currently geared towards not expecting many people, but I've got a solution to that: Punishment for failure to vote involves either fines, which would go directly towards purchasing equipment for the polling places, or community service, which would be done during the next election (as, you guessed it, a volunteer.)

I've heard a few objections when I mentioned this before, but most of them boil down to "I don't want stupid people voting." (Which seems to radically misunderstand exactly who the 30% of the people who helped put Bush into office are, but that's neither here nor there.) These people aren't stupid. Apathetic, perhaps, even despairing of the political process. But in the end, putting a boot up their backside and making them get out and vote is only going to increase their emotional investment and involvement in the political process. They'll be bound to become a little more aware of what's going on if they have to. (Perhaps not much, but it's not like there aren't plenty of people who walk in, vote a straight-party ticket, and walk out feeling like they've done their due diligence as citizens.)

Of course, the real trick is getting it passed. Obviously, no politician is going to go for it; they all like to make lip service about how voting is important, but as incumbents, they have more than a little attachment to the way things are. I say let's put it on the ballot as a referendum. Really, it's bound to pass...after all, the majority of people actually showing up at the polls are smug bastards like me who want to see voter turnout increase. And most of the people who'd be against the bill...well, they're not voting this year.


Anonymous said...

I like the idea there is only two problems I see with it.One it is also equally someone's right not to vote and two most political opponents are equally horrible choices.Though I suppose we all should vote the big problem comes down to if your choice are between someone whose a liar and a thief and someone whose a thief and a liar.Which one is the better choice?

Eric TF Bat said...

Once you get compulsory voting in, you'll also get a solution to the US's other problem: the Two (Indistinguishable) Party System. The reason you have a two party system there, whereas Australia has a bunch of large, medium and small parties as well as a smattering of independents, is because your system caters only to the people who care enough to get out and vote on a work day. The extremists, in other words. Whereas in Australia, our system has to provide something for the people who don't like either party enough to vote for them, so smaller parties spring up. Also, large parties merge, splinter and die, creating new parties from their remains. This Is A Good Thing! It means our system evolves visibly, whereas yours appears to be stuck and stagnant.

But it won't happen, because the US political system is too stuck on the idea that they're the paragons of democracy and the exemplars to the world, and they haven't noticed that, to be frank, even France is better at democracy nowadays than they are...

Eric TF Bat said...

(Oh, and by the way: Tuesday? That's mad. All elections in Oz happen on Saturdays, so that people don't have to skip work to vote (or skip voting to work). Of course, we have a much smaller Jewish population, so Saturday is a general-purpose "day off" for (nearly) everyone, whereas in the US it's a no-no for the same reason Sunday would be there and here. So yes, public holiday: you could call it Actually Being A Democracy Instead Of Just Yammering On About It Day. Or do what some other countries do, and split the election over two days.)

Dan said...

In response to the anonymous commenter, technically, under the Australian system, we still retain our right not to vote.

All that we are required to do under the compulsory voting system is show up at the voting booths and get our names marked off. If we want to walk out at that point, or scribble over the ballot or express our dissatisfaction with the candidates by not voting, we're free to do so.

But, heck, once you've gone to all the trouble of getting there, you might as well vote for somebody.

RichardAK said...

I'm sorry, but both this post and the comments to it are based on some pretty significant misconceptions, the most critical of which is that higher voter turnout would alter political outcomes, and, more specifically, benefit the Left. The best evidence we have suggests otherwise. First of all, public opinion polling on whole variety of issues tends to show consistently similar results when looking at voters and non-voters. Second of all, elections wherein voter turnout has been above average, it has not benefited the Left; turnout was unusually high in 2004, for example.

Also, voter turnout tends to be higher in presidential election years than in off-year elections, and yet there's little evidence to suggest that this helps the Left in presidential election years, or the Right in off-years. On the contrary, the trend has almost always been that the party that controls the White House tends to do better in presidential election years, and worse in off-years. This trend doesn't seem to vary in a statistically significant way depending on which party controls the White House.

So, in short, the idea that election outcomes would be different if more people voted does not appear to hold water.

The next big misconception would appear to be that people don't vote either out of apathy or dissatisfaction with the available choices. Again, the best evidence suggests that this is not the case. Look again at the fact that more people vote when the White House is up for grabs. Why do more people vote then? Because there's more at stake then in just voting for a Representative and a Senator. Likewise, voter turnout tends to be much higher in swing states, and in close elections more generally, for the simple reason that a single vote carries more weight in a close election. Lastly, people who don't vote often make that choice precisely because they are satisfied either with the status quo or the projected likely outcome of the election. The long and the short of it is, though, that people who choose not to vote appear to make that choice for rational reasons that do not reflect problems with our system of government.

Furthermore, I would like to address the contention made by eric tf bat, that compulsory voting would promote the growth of multiple parties. This is almost certainly not so. The two-party system is a function of first-past-the-post or winner-take-all voting. Australia has multiple parties because it has instant-run-off voting. It's really that simple.

Now, while many people are critical of winner-take-all and think that instant-run-off or proportional systems are more democratic and/or tend to produce better governance. The problem with the first claim is that, yes, instant run-off and proportional voting does do a better job of capturing a voter's preference ordering, they do not capture the voter's preference magnitude, while winner-take-all does. For example, if you prefer candidate A to B, but prefer B to C, for which should you vote? In winner-take-all voting, if you conclude that A has little chance of winning, you would have to decide by how much do you prefer A to B, and B to C. If you think that the difference between A and B is small, but the difference between B and C is large, you will pick B. On the other hand, if you think that the difference between A and B is large and between B and C small, you will pick A. In short, this system sacrifices capturing information about voters' preference order in exchange for preference magnitude. Proportional and instant-run-off systems simply make the opposite trade-off. So I am unpersuaded that these other systems are more democratic.

I'm even less persuaded that they produce better governance. By forcing voters to prioritize their preferences, winner-take-all lets politicians know what issues are really important to the electorate, and which are sideshows. Furthermore, by encouraging a two-party system, winner-take-all ensures stability of administration; you don't have the problem of coalitions constantly falling apart, leading to the dissolution of the government and repeated new elections.

And I want to touch again on what I think is really animating this discussion: the belief that higher voter turnout would produce greater success for liberals in America. This is really not so; America has a more conservative government than other developed countries because America has a more conservative people. There are various historical reasons why this is so, but it is so. Fiddling with the electoral system is not going to change that underlying reality. Anyway, I apologize for the length of this comment.

Fletch said...

There are three reasons why I wouldn’t back a move like this.

1) With the common use of absentee ballets these days to register votes, getting people to the polls is no longer the hurdle. People can vote from their bed rooms weeks in advance of the actual vote tally, so making it mandatory to go to the polling site won’t solve any problems except maybe the problem of their not being enough grumpy people at the poles on election day.

2) A government by the people is a lot different than a government by the apathetic. I honestly think that anybody who doesn’t care enough to make their vote *shouldn’t* have a say in the government. The best you could hope for was a bunch of uneducated voters. The worst, though, is a landslide of spiteful votes by people who didn’t want to vote in the first place. That’s how Sanjaya Malakar stayed on American Idol so long.

3) The right not to vote extends to the right to not have to go to the polling site. The solution of “you don’t have to vote when you go there” doesn’t deal with the issue of imposing your views on others. I may not understand why someone chooses not to vote, but I wouldn’t presume to force him to registers as a non-voter.

I think the real solution to low voter turnout is some effective education. Thirty-second TV spots of Madonna wearing the American flag don’t educate people. You need to show people in concrete terms how thing’s they’re unhappy with could’ve been solved by voting.

Anonymous said...

To the Austrailian poster, as I heard it when they set up the elections way back when it was put on Tuesday because America was a rural farming country and even if there was religious freedom most were religious. It couldn't take place on Saturday because someone who had to travel a day to get to a town couldn't get back home by Sunday.

So Monday was market day where a farmer heads out to sell his produce, etc. arrives on Tuesday, also votes and heads home.

As for mandatory voting: the lesser of two evils is still evil. If I think the choices for President both suck and I want his/her selection to be on someone elses head I should be able to do that.

And then there's policing it. The US has secret ballots you know.

Anonymous said...

richardak's comment was excellent, thank you.

As far as the issue at hand, mandatory voting is an awful idea. If turnout is becoming a problem, and I'm not sure it is, then let's change the vote to a Saturday or make a holiday out of it. The turnout was higher in 2004 because the issues at hand were more critical (anyone remember what the big issues were in 2000? Campaign finance reform... yawn), and the turnout is expected to be high this year as well.

John Seavey said...

Not commenting on other people's feelings towards the idea, because people will feel the way they feel about it, but...enforcing it's not a problem. Yes, we have secret ballots in the sense that nobody's allowed to know who you vote for, but there's already a tracking system in place to make sure you voted (because they want to make sure you don't try to do it again.)