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In a season of bad ideas, one stands out

In a season of bad ideas, one stands out
© Greg Nash

Throughout this period of national unease, debates about changing how Americans vote have continued uninterrupted, even intensified given the high stakes accompanying the election and the unique challenges presented by the pandemic. Although the majority of attention has been on debates over voting by mail, proposals to lower the voting age to 16 or to seek statehood for the District of Columbia, one proposed change — more than any other — would be most transformative and quite troubling: mandatory voting, which has been advocated with increased vigor.

Although mandatory voting is widely opposed by the American public — according to a 2018 Pew report, by 79 percent — it has been attracting a sizable chorus of voices. Well before California state assemblyman Marc Levine introduced a bill in February requiring every Californian registered to vote to "cast a ballot, marked or unmarked in whole or in part, at every election,” there had been a rush of sorts to endorse the idea after it was notably floated by then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump hits Biden as 'disrespectful' to Obama Is America ready to return to the Obama-Biden foreign policy? Trump's debate performance was too little, too late MORE in 2015. The idea has attracted the support of many on the Left from Howard Dean to Ralph Nader. And this summer, interestingly enough, some conservatives — including Jonah Goldberg — joined the ranks, signalling support for making voting compulsory.

Proponents of mandatory voting often begin by bemoaning declining trust in government before suggesting that requiring citizens to participate more in politics might remedy this erosion of confidence. They then routinely cite the United States’ allegedly abysmal voter turnout (55.7 percent in 2016 and 53.4 percent in 2018), before almost uniformly invoking the apparently unprecedented success of Australia, which adopted compulsory voting in 1924.

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Rarely discussed, however, is the reality that Australia’s decision to adopt the policy was far more the result of political considerations at the time than a genuine belief in the policy’s inherent desirability. And, indeed, one suspects something similar is at play with the current proposals in the United States. After all, some proponents of the policy — such as the political scientist Judith Brett — explicitly argue for it on the basis that increased turnout helps bring more liberal candidates to office. (Some of its defenders are even less subtle: “How Australia's compulsory voting saved it from Trumpism,” read one Guardian headline.) However, Democratic proponents of the policy might be at risk of being hoisted by their own petard, given surveys suggesting that in some states — such as Pennsylvania — non-voters lean towards more conservative candidates such as President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE. (I am reminded of former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s answer when I inquired last year if he supported mandatory voting: He replied by saying, in essence, that Australia has the exact same problems the United States does.)

For all of the consternation about voter turnout, the United States remains among world leaders in the percentage of registered voters who do, in fact, vote. In 2016, it was 86.8 percent. Even when comparing turnout of eligible voters, the United States is still positioned close to other perfectly functioning nations, such as Ireland (58.04 percent in 2016). And the United States remains well ahead of Switzerland's 38.63 percent in 2015.

However, for the vast majority of Americans who oppose the policy, it is unlikely that their revulsion is rooted in comparative turnout statistics or the details of Australian history.

At play is likely a basic American distrust of political compulsion As George F. Will wrote last year when discussing China, “There is the essence of totalitarianism: not that you cannot participate in politics but that you must participate.”

Perhaps voters also sense that insofar as voting is virtuous, it is only so when done voluntarily.

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Or maybe they suspect that widespread abstention from voting provides useful information about the candidate choices available or the state of the two major parties. Voter abstention, it is then argued, is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for things being not quite right, and to enact mandatory voting would simply be to paper it over.

Most of all, however, the push for mandatory voting betrays one of the foremost problems in American life today: the belief that social ills of all sorts, including fading trust in government, can be solved through mere elections.

It is no surprise, though, given our current climate that the push would be to make politics an even more central feature of people’s lives. However, even amid today’s twin tendencies of pushing proposals for perceived political advantage and questioning every status quo, perhaps we could leave this one aspect of voting well enough alone.

If someone prefers to sit out election day, that is a choice we should really be able to accept.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.