June 26, 2012

Take This Ballot and Shove It

I’ve already said that I won’t be voting for Barack Obama this fall, as I did in 2008. As a result, it most likely means I won’t vote for anybody in the presidential race (sorry GOP friends – I won’t vote for Romney, either). Given the choices on the state and local races further down the ballot, I might skip out on most of those, too. I’ve decided I can no longer play the “lesser of two evils” game. My decision not to vote if those are the only realistic choices is a political statement, just as much as voting for one side or the other is.

Which is why this column (via) rubs me all kinds of wrong ways. In it, Peter Orszag, a former Obama OMD* director and current vice chairman at Citibank (but I won’t hold that against him, much), argues that the solution to our political mess is mandatory voting. Putting the power of the state behind the decision to vote would do all sorts of wondrous things. In other words, Orszag wants to turn the Government into Diddy:

Orszag cites Australia as a success story for mandatory voting, which has seen its rate of participation jump from levels similar to ours up to 91%. I’m not sure how a 9% failure rate for “mandatory” voting is really a success, but put that to one side for now. I will concede that Orszag is correct that a mandatory voting law would increase voter participation. Most people do what they’re told, after all, particularly where there’s a punishment for not doing so. This is no shock.

But why take that drastic step? For one thing, Orszag argues that if people had to vote they would pay more attention to issues and thus become a better informed electorate.** I’m not sure that follows, but perhaps some people might take it more seriously if they have to do it anyway. However, his citation to another proponent who asks:
Jury duty is mandatory; why not voting?
makes me wonder what planet he’s living on. Because so many citizens eagerly jump at the chance to serve as jurors. There are no jokes about how a jury is comprised of 12 people too stupid to get out of it or anything, right?

Orszag’s second alleged benefit of mandatory voting is a bit rich, coming from a vice chairman of Citibank, namely that it would reduce the influence of money in elections:
Turn-out-the-vote efforts, often bankrolled by big-money groups, would become largely irrelevant. Negative advertising could be less effective, because a central aim of such ads is to discourage participation in the opponent’s camp.
I’ll assume that’s an accurate statement of where the money is spent now and why, but Orszag presents no evidence to support his argument that mandatory voting would make all that money magically disappear. Voters, after all, still have to actually get to the polls (for the most part), giving candidates and parties an incentive to continue efforts to get them there. And, again, if he thinks that all the money pouring into elections will simply evaporate if everybody has to vote, instead of finding other means of expression, he’s living in a fantasy world.

I’ll at least give Orszag credit for wanting to jump start public participation in elections and politics. After all, more democracy is a good thing, right? Who would argue otherwise? Turns out, Orszag did, just a few months ago:
To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.
I don’t even disagree with him that the ability of any group to govern these days is so limited as to make it almost worthless. But, still, I’m not the one trying to get everybody to the polls by force to vote for people who would be hamstrung by the kind procedural limitations Orszag was selling not so long ago.

In the end, what Orsazg doesn’t address is the fact that the decision whether to vote at all, as much as the decision about who to vote for, is a political act. If the slowly slumping number of those who think voting is worth their time concerns folks like Orsazg, trying to force them to vote is the wrong response. The right response is to wonder why people are so certain that voting is worthless and think about how the system might be revamped to change that. But that’s a long, messy, and inconclusive process. Much better to ladle on another legal requirement and declare the problem solved.

* Office of Management and Budget. Not Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, unfortunately.

** He cites research about what Ilya Somin at Volokh calls rational ignorance when it comes to voting. In other words, that since an individual vote is so unlikely to have an impact on an election, it’s rational for voters to spend their time doing things other than becoming informed on the issues. Nobody heeds the lesson of Futurama:
Fry: If I were registered to vote, I'd send these clowns a message by staying home on election day and dressing up like a clown.

Leela: You're not registered?

Fry: Nope. Not vaccinated, either. Besides, it's not like one vote ever made a difference.

Leela: That's not true. The first robot president won by exactly one vote.

Bender: Ah, yes. John Quincy Adding Machine. He struck a chord with the voters by pledging not to go on a killing spree.

Farnsworth: But, like most politicians, he promised more than he could deliver.

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