Washington Matters


Should Voting Be Mandatory?

Mark Willen

It might be the best way to fix Washington's worst problem.



Californians took a bold move this week -- voting for a revolutionary change in the way elections are held. Under Proposition 14, overwhelmingly passed Tuesday, the state will hold a wide-open primary in future election years, with the top two vote getters facing off in November regardless of party. That could mean a Republican facing a Republican or a Democrat facing a Democrat.

Backers of the measure, including retiring GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, say it will make it much harder for candidates on the far left or far right, promoting a move to the center and fostering compromise over partisan bickering. Critics say it will give an insurmountable advantage to candidates with strong name recognition or millions of their own money to spend.

The truth is, no one really knows what the effect will be. Only time will tell, and then, only if the new election plan survives court challenges already being mounted. This much is certain, though: The result is another indication that voters are angry and desperate for a whole new approach. The current system just doesn’t serve their needs. Of all the messages being sent this primary season, the most consistent is that voters despise Washington, and polls show that among the biggest reasons are partisanship and gridlock.

But there may be a better way to get to the center: Make voting mandatory. One of the reasons for the partisanship today is that primary voters tend to be the most committed, and often to the most extreme position. That pushes Republican primary candidates to the right, hence the Tea Party successes in states such as Nevada and Kentucky. And it crowds out centrist Democrats (Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s win this week was an exception and a surprise). And because many House districts have been gerrymandered to be safely Republican or safely Democratic, winning the primary is too often all that matters.

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Polls have consistently shown that most Americans are in the broad center, more willing to compromise but less engaged on a daily basis and less willing to take to the streets or get involved early in the process, when candidates are being chosen. By the time they start paying attention, their choices are limited, often with no option to vote for a centrist candidate. Making voting a requirement could change that. Candidates would have to appeal to the center to get elected, forcing the parties to choose candidates who can appeal to a broader electorate.

Critics of mandatory voting say it’s wrong to force everyone to participate. Why shouldn’t those most committed to a cause and most willing to take an active role have a bigger say than the less passionate middle? There’s some appeal to that argument, but as the Brookings Institution noted in a recent paper advocating mandatory voting, the drawback is that while “passionate partisanship infuses the system with energy, it erects road blocks to problem solving. Many committed partisans prefer gridlock to compromise, and gridlock is no formula for effective governance.”

It would be easy to enforce a mandatory voting plan, using voter registration rolls and attaching a small fine for enforcement. Some would choose to pay the fine rather than vote, but most would cast ballots. When Australia adopted such a system, participation soared to 95%.

Mandatory voting would clearly be a hard sell. It would be viewed as an infringement on the right of states to set their own rules, and many would see it as another sign of big government telling them what to do. Maybe. But if voters are really unhappy with the partisanship and bickering in Washington, it may be a much better way to go than what California is trying.




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