The other day I was talking with my Aussie friend Simon about compulsory voting in Australia. I marveled at the idea, and have since been thinking about if or how such a policy could be applied to our voting system here in the states.
Australia started the policy to its states in 1924. Before the policy, turnout was about 46%, roughly on par with where the U.S. is right now. After the policy it’s an average of 96%. Their political system isn’t in total chaos. Kangaroos aren’t being elected. And what I mean by compulsory voting is, it’s a 20 dollar fine to not vote, and you technically only have to show up to the poll, and could choose to vote for no one if you felt compelled.
The U.S. ironically had some of its’ highest voter turnout rates during the gilded age in the late 1800’s, estimated to be around 70- 80%. The political system was riddled with corruption and cronyism. But this period in time was also dominated by deep partisan loyalty. It was about having your side win to get favors, have parades, and call names; machine party politics. After the Progressive era in American history, most of these corruptible and deplorable practices are gone.
Should we be forced to vote just as we are forced to go to school and pay taxes? I understand the many points to not having compulsory voting. It seems un-American to compel people to the polls, especially knowing that most Americans don’t know much of anything about their government or how it works. But that same fact is the reason that I’m even thinking about this. After fighting a revolution against a tyrant, it’s unlikely the founders were worried about getting eligible voters to the polls when so much blood had been spilt to secure independence. It was taboo to not care about the new government’s processes.
If we had compulsory voting, its more likely people would at least get a basic grasp on the issues. There is usually a sense of embarrassment that comes with making an important decision without a reason for doing so. It should not be difficult for any intelligible person to participate in the democratic process after spending 20 minutes on an issues website, or watching half an hour of debate. A broader electorate would mean politicians would have to cater to the entire population rather than small blocs. Our elected officials would be more moderate or at least more compromising. We should not have politicians anywhere in the country like Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry or George Bush that baffle me with their stupidity. Our politics are so partisan because 80% of our turnout comes from party loyalists, forcing a reliance for elections on a sliver of independent voters. We need a broader, more educated electorate.
And to educate people we need civics classes all throughout high school. Anything to get across a basic understanding of the importance of voting and political participation. I am sick of hearing people saying they aren’t interested in politics or they don’t care. You don’t have to be a political junkie to come to a logical decision. I can personally sit any cooperative person down, and in 10 minutes have them figure out which candidate or party they think would best represent their voice. Voting isn’t about a mastery of politics, it’s a simple and basic democratic right that many people in this world do not have. To be apathetic about something so easy and important is like not caring whether you breathe oxygen or mustard gas.
So maybe giving a good nudge for people to go to the polls would be for the best. But seeing as how legislative bodies across the country can barely agree what time of day it is, I don’t see it happening in my lifetime, or much else. And with Republicans trying so hard to make sure people don’t go to the polls, I don’t see them suddenly having the contradictory goal of maximizing voter turnout while simultaneously making voting more difficult.
Or maybe a better idea would be something that John Stuart mentioned on his debate last week. And that is mandating public service for a year for all citizens before the age of 30 or so. That doesn’t necessarily mean military service, though countries like South Korea and Israel do that. People could work in conservation, public works, homeless shelters, food pantries, you name it. Our youth isn’t exposed to the issues of our time like poverty or the environment, so how can they be expected to comprehend solutions or the importance of them if they see them through the lens of Jersey Shore?
I don’t know the best way forward to improve our political process, and I don’t know if it would sit well with anyone to compel people to serve their country when it should be an innate desire. But I don’t want to wake up in 10 years to news that a minority of voters elected Michelle Bachmann as president. I’d be more than willing to make apathetic citizens pay 20 dollars if only to prevent that catastrophe.