Compulsory voting might not be such a good idea

I read a Peter Orszag column for the Dallas Morning News this evening and it forced me to ponder long and hard the implications of compulsory voting.

I’ve blogged/ranted about elections several times before, so y’all already know that I’m pretty much an election NUT. Y’all also already know that the intense apathy of the American electorate frustrates me to no end. As a reporter, I almost feel a personal responsibility to get people to go out and vote, and when turnout is as low as it was in the last primary election for my state, I feel like I failed at my job.

So how do I make these fuckers care we solve the problem of low turnout? Well, Orszag suggested imitating our brother from down under: Australia. According to his column, voting is compulsory there. The fines for not participating in elections are light at first and grow steadily with continued avoidance. So it gives people a fairly good incentive to get their butts off the couch and head to the polls.

The idea is intriguing, but I foresee a great deal of problems.

First of all, the election system is kind of jacked up in this country because there’s no set standard. The federal government does not govern elections; Instead it’s up to the states to come up with their own set of election laws, so they differ from state to state. That in and of itself is not a problem. Election laws should differ from state to state because each state has a different culture. They also have different governmental structures. Not all cities in the U.S. have a council or a mayor, not all counties have a governing body. So standardizing election laws would be difficult. Ergo, it would be incredibly difficult to make compulsory voting the standard because first you would have to standardize election laws across the country.

For example: Primary elections in my state are closed, meaning only voters registered with one of the major political parties can vote in partisan elections. And in my city, all elections are partisan. I am registered independent, so I could not vote in my primary election, as much as I wanted to. So guess what? I get fined.

In order to avoid that, they would have to make it so that I would be able to vote (They should be doing that anyway, but that’s a rant for another day).  And that would require standardizing elections across the board. This brings up a whole different discussion of states’ rights and how far we should limit federal government, but you get the general idea.

Second of all, making voting compulsory would require a level of supervision that makes me uncomfortable. The government would be able to track whether or not any one individual specifically voted. They can’t do that now; All they can determine is how many people voted and compare that to the number of registered voters to determine how many people didn’t vote. But to require everyone to cast a ballot would be keeping track of who did and did not do so. Then they could hunt you down and mail you a fine letter. Does anyone else find that creepy?

Third of all, I dislike the idea of fines in general. What if someone is working crazy, crazy hours just to make ends meet and they don’t have the time to make it out to the polls? There goes part of their paycheck. It’s an endless, vicious and unnecessary cycle.

The real root of the problem in voter turnout is making people care. Forcing people to vote isn’t going to make people more interested in elections. The real root of the problem is the crazy disinterest in matters that affect all of us.

I maintain that there’s a way to get people to care without taking their money. We just have to find it.


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