When I lived in Colorado a number of decades ago, Ridgeway was what we called a “blow-by” town. That’s as in, “I’m going to blow-by Ridgeway on my way to ski in Telluride.” Then, as now, it was a small ranching community with less than a thousand residents. Now, there are tele-techies and lifestylers living there amid a middle-aged population, but the town is still small. The region around Ridgeway is made up of river valleys nestling in some stunning mountain country; some would say idyllic.
Maybe it is not so idyllic after all. According to the Denver Post (Denverpost.com - April 26), the local pub owner has put Ridgeway on the map by proposing mandatory voting in town elections. The town has a very poor record of voter turnout, to the dismay of a number of citizens. The proposal has stirred up some emotion and some confrontations in this already occasionally contentious community. In a related article, the Post reports that 21 countries have mandatory voting laws, including Greece and Australia. “Penalties range from prohibitions on obtaining passports and driver's licenses for nonvoters in Greece, to being fined $15 in Australia.”
Is non-voting protected under the U.S. Constitution as a form of free speech? Or is it an obligatory act of citizenship like serving on a jury, paying taxes or serving in the military? The Post points to the 1896 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that the government can’t force citizens to vote. Proponents of mandatory voting might argue that the increase in voter participation is an admirable goal leading to better representation. But could it work, and is it worth it?
Mandatory voting would certainly change the political landscape in the U.S. The highly developed art of “getting out the vote” would be gone. Whipping up the emotional aspect of electioneering would take a real licking. It might even force politicians and political parties to spend more effort presenting convincing discussions and arguments for or against their platforms than is currently the case. But would it actually result in a more informed voting public, or would those who don’t vote today merely mail in their ballots with random votes or even no markings at all? I suspect the latter course, or worse, might be the case. Humans can really be passive/aggressive when they choose, and nonsense voting would be an interesting way to defeat the purpose of mandatory voting. Another possible consequence might be to make votes available for sale. If a voter doesn’t really care, they could easily make their ballots available to others -- for a price. I’m guessing people who voluntarily vote now are less likely to sell their ballots.
Mandatory voting would also add significantly to the immigration debate. If every eligible citizen were required to vote, and therefore register, there would be an almost certain check on citizenship, especially if linked to other documentation like driver's licenses, social security identification, tax records or employment records. Beyond the immigration issue, will the whole notion of mandatory voting for all eligible citizens finally force us into a national registration system? The technology is available to do so. We can track every citizen if we wish; it is merely a question of our will as a nation and as a society. Is that where we want to go?
In an open system of government, apathy and low voter turnout can’t be corrected by legislation or regulation. Those are misplaced strategies leading to the possibility of more onerous government control and intrusion, i.e. a police state. Instead, the reasons for voter apathy need to be understood and corrected. Is our electoral system overly corrupt and too strongly controlled by special interests? If so, then the voters and responsible elected officials need to respond by insisting on reform. Unfortunately, if they don’t, then guess what? Nothing will change. Or perhaps materialism has so overwhelmed our society we have forgotten the lessons about what it takes to sustain a democratic form of government. In that case, perhaps we need to look at the values we teach our children. Or perhaps we are happy with how well our government takes care of our problems. We can tell ourselves, "The Ship of State is running well, not to worry!"
The current debate about what is important to us in this country is smelly, noisy and exasperating. For all of the worst of it, that debate is still critically important to what we will become as a society and a nation. I, for one, don’t support mandatory voting or citizenship, for the reason that I believe it further enables us to not take our responsibilities to ourselves seriously. Let's be noisy and active. Let's not let our Ship flounder.