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Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Why don’t more people show up to vote on Election Day?  In elections all over America, fewer voters are turning out at the polls than ever before. The New York Times ran an op-ed piece last week decrying this national trend, and suggesting that voting be mandatory, just like jury duty. So how big is the problem, and how important is it to force citizens to vote?

My home state of Louisiana recently held what traditionally is the largest election in any four year period, to pick most of the statewide and local public offices.  Turnout was a miserable 35%.  In some precincts, fewer than 10 voters showed up to cast their ballots.  There have been recent elections where the only people to show up were the five required voting commissioners.  And low turnout is not unique to Louisiana.  The downward trend is prevalent all across the country.

Of course we should encourage all Americans to vote.  Participatory democracy is a hall mark of our system of government.  There have been hard fought battles in the past century to give voting rights to women and to protect the voting rights for a cross section of minorities.  The Voting Rights Act was necessary in 1965, but it’s outlived its usefulness and discriminates against a hand full of mostly southern states.  The problem today is not to stop voter discrimination, but how to encourage more people to show up on Election Day.

In his recent op-ed article, William Galston with the Brookings Institution argues what he feels to be a number of advantages to mandatory voting.  He points out that thirty-one countries have some form of mandatory voting, including two thirds of Latin American nations and a cross section of other democracies that include Australia.  Here’s what he sees as the benefits of a legal obligation to vote:

“Imagine our politics with laws and civic norms that yield near-universal voting. Campaigns could devote far less money to costly, labor-intensive get-out-the-vote efforts. Media gurus wouldn’t have the same incentive to drive down turnout with negative advertising. Candidates would know that they must do more than mobilize their bases with red-meat rhetoric on hot-button issues. Such a system would improve not only electoral politics but also the legislative process. Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures whose major purpose is to agitate partisans, Congress might actually roll up its sleeves and tackle the serious, complex issues it ignores. ”

All well and good, and few would argue with the advantages of lessening the tension of governing and creating an atmosphere for more political compromise, and less of the present “in your face” way of governing.  But what price is paid for such results?  Does the government have to hold a stick over your head with financial sanctions to force you to vote?  Australia, for example, fines any eligible voter who fails to show up at the polls.  A small fine to begin with, about the amount of a traffic ticket, with escalating amounts for repeated failures.  Yes, turnout is around 95 %, and Australians tend to see voting as a personal obligation, something not nearly as ingrained in the U.S.

One reason, particularly here in Louisiana, that voting percentages are way down, is the changing patterns of “getting out the vote.”Â  Retail politics in the past meant well oiled political machines that spent considerable resources on Election Day.  Both political parties developed aggressive get out the vote campaigns with transportation being provided to voting locations for voters who requested it.  Numerous political rallies, beginning months before Election Day, was standard campaign procedure in years past.  Now it’s primarily television, direct mail and robo calls. The election “street money” and the retail politics of the past have gone by the wayside, resulting in less reinforcement and fewer voters making their way to the polls.

Another reason voting percentages are way down is the fact that in many states, way too many elections are held. School boards and local taxing districts often pick an “off election” date, with few other items on the ballot.  They look to get their particularly constituency to the polls with the hopes that those who oppose their particular proposition will not take the time to vote. In many European countries, where voting participation is always quite high, one annual Election Day is held on a Sunday.  Families go to church and then take the time to vote, knowing that they will only have to vote once a year.  In my home state of Louisiana, voters are often asked to vote six times or more per year, frequently with only one or two local issues on the ballot. Generally, U.S. voters face too many elections of little interest to them, resulting in extremely low voter turnout.

Is democracy served by telling citizens that they have to show up and vote, regardless of their interest and/or ignorance of the candidates and the local issues? Can a registered voter be told by the government: “Regardless of your interest in this election, we are requiring you to show up, and if you don’t, you will be fined.”

And finally, how about the argument that not voting is actually a vote?  If all votes are your opinions, then by not voting, are you not expressing your opposition to all those candidates and items on the ballot? I remember back in the 1970’s as a Louisiana State Senator I introduced a proposed law to include “none of the above,” on the ballot.  Isn’t that what you’re indicating when you fail to vote?  And if so, isn’t this your constitutional right?

If the country is going to have a system of government that is responsive to a majority of its citizens at all levels, then high election turnouts is a key ingredient for such a goal.  There are a number of ways for elections officials to encourage going to the polls on Election Day, but it begins with education at the grade school level.

But making voting mandatory takes away the right of a citizen to choose. Freedom means the right to express your views as you see fit.  Voting is one of those options.  So is non-voting.  It’s all about your freedom of choice, isn’t it?  To vote, or not to vote — that is your decision. But living with the consequences is not.


“I never vote for anyone.  I always vote against.”Â Â Â Â Â  W.C. Fields

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the South and on websites worldwide.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

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