SAUNDERS: Should the U.S. Adopt Compulsory Voting?
July 14, 2010
CHOBART, AUSTRALIA – California GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has been taking a lot of heat for her voting record. Or non-voting record.
The former eBay CEO didn’t register to vote in California until 2002. She failed to vote in the 2003 recall election. She didn’t register as a Republican until 2007.
Too bad Whitman didn’t spend her business-big-shot years Down Under. In Australia, it’s against the law for citizens age 18 or older not to vote.
Ask Aussies about the system and they generally support it. The Australian government passed mandatory voting in federal elections after voter participation slipped to 59 percent in 1922 from an earlier high of 71 percent. In recent years, about 95 percent of Australian citizens have voted.
Besides, some Australians will note, it is not a crime to fail to vote if you are not registered. For the vast majority of those who are enrolled but do not vote, it also is easy to get out of the fine – about $20 for a first offense – by citing illness or another extenuating circumstance.
Then there’s the phenomenon known as “donkey voting” – or just randomly ticking off names on the ballot. Call it a protest, call it lazy. The outcome is the same.
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Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William Galston has proposed that America adopt the same system to increase voter participation. In the 2008 presidential election, 61.7 percent of eligible Americans voted, according to George Mason University.
For one thing, Washington should not coerce citizens by making them vote.
In a free country, those who do not wish to vote should be free to abstain. For another, if people are so ill informed as to believe their votes have no import, well, they’re probably right.
And while there is no proving that higher turnout means more left-leaning votes, political scientists of both stripes tend to believe that mandatory voting delivers more votes to the left than to the right. Again, quantity does not mean quality.
Even in Australia, even with compulsory voting, however, high-profile, big-money candidates with poor voting records can prevail.
Peter Garrett – you know, the tall bald singer from the rock band Midnight Oil – ran for office in 2004. At the time, he was forced to admit that for all his politically correct lectures and exhortations for political activism, he himself had not been on the federal election rolls for 10 years.
At the time, conservative Treasurer Peter Costello told the Herald Sun of Melbourne, “If you haven’t been interested enough to have registered and voted in elections, it’s a bit rich to ask other people to vote for you.”
And: “It’s like the pope saying he hadn’t been to church for 10 years.”
Today, Garrett is the Labor Party’s minister for the environment. In both hemispheres, apparently, rich and famous count for something.
– E-mail the Tribune’s Wednesday columnist, Debra J. Saunders, at firstname.lastname@example.org.