Towards Truly Representational Democracy

Y-YAvataqr-Thumbnail 2008_voting_line_in_Brooklynby Professor Ruth O’Brien & Frederic D. O’Brien* (a.k.a. Fred Schwarz, Deputy Managing Editor, National Review)

 You can sure see the professor in President Barack Obama. Whatever will the GOP say now that Obama has momentarily dropped his penchant for executive actions and started rooting for a mandatory-voting law?

Perhaps Obama thinks the GOP will stop claiming that he has a thing for unilateral actions, as he starts advocating for a mandatory, yet unenforceable, law that should please the public since it is, after all, only symbolic?

Mandatory-voting laws like the one in Australia are symbols. They are values laws. Think about it. No politician is going to govern on the premise that her or his constituents must vote, since presumably this would only cause the non-voting “perp” to try to vote you or your party out of office.

No, this is more akin to the anti-flag-burning laws. It’s just a plain patriotic law, but in this case it’s a patriotic law with a punch.

Oddly enough, Americans are the most likely not to cheat on their federal income taxes. We are a rules-bound nation of doers, though not necessarily do-gooders. Similarly, in Australia and all nations with mandatory-voting laws, their citizens vote.

So if this is true, and we supposedly embrace representational democracy, how can a politician be against an unenforceable law that values voting? Now, the figures Obama cites with the 2010 midterm election at 36 percent is nothing new. Midterm congressional elections have been in the mid-30 percent range for more than a century. Similarly, presidential elections have been at a little more than 50 percent participation for this same period of more than a century.

So why would a president with a penchant for executive orders that, unlike laws, can be undone the minute he leaves office start advocating for more unenforceable laws, knowing full well that the GOP will emphasize the mandatory rather than the unenforceable aspect of such a law? Obama’s not power-hungry, but he sure is getting frustrated and impatient. Can you blame him?

The last time anyone altered any kind of participation in a significant way was with the progressives, and I don’t mean those in the 21st century but rather those in the 20th century who were responsible for making parties responsible, and the only thing that happened was that voter participation plummeted from a high of 81 percent in the late 1870s down to the lows we are currently faced with.

So, what Obama is really pointing out is that whether it’s partisan or ideological polarization with a progressive/conservative divide or a separation-of-powers divide with all three branches — the legislative/executive/judicial branches battling it out — our system of politics as we know it has been broken for over 100 years.

We are past due for dramatic changes in voting laws, including the Supreme Court’s recent and current attempts to undermine the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That is, if the United States actually values or wants to put power into more than democratic participation.

YY-PurpleDividerThe practical problems that go along with mandatory voting are numerous. Ruth has mentioned one of these; others include the inevitable proliferation of third-party protest and joke candidates, some of whom would actually win; the criminalization of anyone who has sudden change in plans that keeps them from voting; and the massive increase in line lengths and waiting times at polling places, even in elections where all the races are one-sided (would mandatory voting apply even in off-years? If so, that’s just cruel).

On top of that, union leaders, and other representatives of interest groups, would lose bargaining power because they could no longer threaten to sit out an election. The assumption that bringing a bunch of sullen, uninterested, uninformed voters into the electoral process would lead to better officeholders is questionable. And it’s an odd argument for any law when you list its unenforceability as a point in its favor.

But none of these things matter, because even if mandatory voting would lead to Lincoln vs. Douglas or Roosevelt vs. Wilson in every election, and even if the public’s collective wisdom would cumulate with higher turnout instead of being diluted, it would miss the real issue: The government doesn’t own us. It can require us to serve in the armed forces during wartime and to show up for jury duty, because those are basic functions of government that cannot be done properly without mandatory mass participation. But elections achieve their purpose whether every eligible voter votes or only some of them. That’s why the government can’t make us go to the polls when we’d rather be working or buying socks or sitting on the beach, just to make the turnout numbers look artificially better for a few democracy idealists. Not if we want to call ourselves a free country.

Speaking of idealists, it was revealing when Obama said that mandatory voting would “counteract money.” My first thought was that he had this backwards; if people who don’t care about politics are made to vote, won’t they just pull the lever for whichever side’s advertisements they’ve seen more often? In other words, the side with more money? But of course that’s not how Obama thinks; in his world, there’s “money” on one side and “the people” on the other, and they are inalterably opposed (unless the money comes from George Soros, or Tom Steyer, or Mike Bloomberg, or AFSCME . . .).

Parties and politicians need to earn our votes, to inspire us enough that we’ll make the effort to get out of our chair and go to the polling place. Mandatory voting is a lazy and ineffective shortcut, like imposing price controls instead of taming inflation. The answer to low turnout is not more coercive laws, but better candidates.


*Frederic D. O’Brien’s views are entirely his own and not related to CUNY in any way.
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