Obama's mention of mandatory voting stirs activists

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President Obama’s mention of mandatory voting earlier this week buoyed the spirits of those looking for reform at the ballot box — even if the White House isn’t actually calling for a new law.

The priority, say lawmakers and advocates intent on restoring the Voting Rights Act, among other electoral reformsshould remain increased voting accessibility. But raising the prospect of mandatory voting at least makes the chorus of those pushing for action a little bit louder.

"The president has promised to fix our broken voting system," Martin Luther King III, a voting rights advocate, president of the Drum Major Institute and the son of the nation’s most famous civil rights leader, said in a statement shared with The Hill.

King added that the mere mention of mandatory voting from Obama was “bold” and added that it could help fuel efforts to “end the silence of good people in the place that matters most for our democracy – the voting booth.” 

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Others didn't outright reject the notion of mandatory voting. 

"I think it's an interesting idea," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told The Hill. Describing voting as "a duty of citizenship," Hoyer added, "Whether it's a mandatory requirement or not, I think that's for more discussion."

Fielding a question about the effects of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling during a speech in Cleveland on Wednesday, Obama suggested that mandatory voting "may end up being a better strategy in the short term" to reduce the influence of money in elections than other approaches.

"It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything," Obama said, noting that youth, lower-income and minority groups are often where the lowest rates of turnout are found.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was among the first to criticize Obama's endorsement of the idea, saying on Fox News, “I don't put anything past him. I mean, there are a lot of things that have already happened that I never thought I would see."

"I think the overall conversation was purely about giving power back to the people," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) countered in an interview with The Hill. "The president is not saying mandatory voting for Democrats. He's suggesting that all people should be encouraged to vote, whatever their views may be."

Still, White House press secretary Josh Earnest walked back Obama's remark on Thursday, clarifying, "The president was not making a specific policy prescription for the United States."

Obama cited Australia, one of at least two dozen countries with compulsory voting laws on the books, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). About half those countries enforce the laws, with penalties ranging from fees of around $15 to potential jail time for repeat offenders, or disenfranchisement.

But the political cultures of Australia and the U.S. are very different, according to political scientist Norman Ornstein, who referenced his own interactions with Australian political figures from across the spectrum.  

"We're not going to do this for a very long time, if ever, because we don't like mandates," said Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has pushed for electoral reform through groups such as the Why Tuesday? nonprofit.

Ornstein notes he has been promoting the concept, which he prefers to call "mandatory attendance,” for more than a decade. He shies away from "draconian" penalties for non-voters, but argues the concept floated by Obama could drastically increase turnout. 

Fewer than 37 percent of eligible voters in the U.S. cast ballots during the 2014 midterms, according to the United States Election Project. 

Turnout in recent presidential cycles also doesn't come close to the more than 90 percent in Australia, according to data from IDEA.

"It's a bold idea. It's one that hasn't been explored yet, and it makes sense for the president to explore it as he explores all options to get more Americans involved in the electoral process," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the Washington director for the New York University Brennan Center for Justice. 

Still, in Congress at least, the Voting Rights Act and related measures remain the primary focus.

"I know that some countries do have the requirement to vote," Hoyer said. "I'm not sure Americans think that's the way we ought to go, but I'm confident that almost all Americans believe that we ought to make it easier for them to vote."