Turnout requirement boosts democracy, saves money
If it’s good enough for Switzerland, Italy, and other countries and states, it ought to be good enough for Louisianans and will save them a little money in the process.
This doesn’t refer to improved horology, better chocolatiers, or increased viniculture, but instead to imposing a double requirement on passage of any tax measure requiring voter approval. SB 200 by state Sen. Bret Allain would require that not only a majority of those voting in the election approve of the measure for it to pass into law, but also that a minimum of 20 percent of registered voters in the jurisdiction turn out for the election.
In local elections for these matters in the state, it is not surprising to have turnout figures of five percent or even less, even in large jurisdictions. This has spurred calls that important fiscal decisions end up getting decided with the explicit support of perhaps two percent of all voters mocks the concept of majority rule. Worse, low turnouts for elections with only tax measures on the ballot, as permitted in the regular election cycle by providing additional dates beyond those when elections for office are scheduled, can be used by governments to increase chances for passing of these tax measures that they depend upon for revenues. The thinking here is that low interest allows those who do or would disproportionately benefit from these taxes – bureaucrats, politicians, recipients of government contracts, etc. – to have every incentive to mobilize to vote for the tax, while to the general public paying of these taxes (hidden in sales transactions, rental payments, mortgage bills, etc.) these seem out of sight and mind and so it is much harder to mobilize those against these to come to the polls and cast negative votes.
Thus, Allain’s bill would count a no-show on election day as an automatic no vote for the 20 percent hurdle. Which has the above beneficiaries – having benefits concentrated among a few but paid for per person in smaller amounts by the many – and ideological advocates of big government complaining about the bill’s requirement, making various spurious claims designed to defeat the effort.
One red herring is that this will doom all tax measures to defeat. While it’s true that it’s rare that tax issues on a ballot without any elective office or even any other kind of ballot issue accompanying seldom reach 20 percent turnout, some do, such as the Apr. 30. 2011 fire protection millage vote in Jefferson Parish that almost got a third of electors out. But more relevantly, tax measures often go well above the mark when there are other items on the ballot. So if there’s fear that voter disinterest would impose a structural disincentive against tax approval, then it’s a simple matter of scheduling these items when other elections encourage greater voter interest in these tax matters – where a change that produces greater citizen interest in public policy and self-governing only can be considered beneficial to the workings of democracy.
However, a half-baked objection to scheduling tax elections when there are other items on the ballot would be that what if the tax is needed to be decided upon and no such other things loom for deciding in the immediate future? This ignores the fact that in a quadrennial cycle three of those years will have regularly scheduled federal, state, and local officer elections, and in some jurisdictions like Bossier City or Gretna in all four years. For existing taxes, it’s known years in advance when they will expire and so a renewal easily can be planned around known dates of officer elections, and it’s unlikely enough offices would be uncontested to leave few incentives to participate. Plus, the option of using the other dates now normally used by taxing authorities still remains. And, just in case an emergency does come up where policy-makers think taxes are so necessary, R.S. 18:402 provides for using almost any additional Saturday for these elections in a pinch and R.S. 18:1283 allows a quarter of electors to call such an election, and if they are in fact so necessary undoubtedly at least a fifth of the electorate will participate.
Finally, a straw man argument is that only those who bother to turn out to vote should have a say in the ultimate decision. But that is a far less compelling reasoning than in reference to elections with candidates. With the latter, voters chose to have someone stand in for them for a term to make policy decisions, where nonvoting may be interpreted as satisfaction, or at least a willingness to accept consequences thereof by failing to vote, with at least once candidate running. Moreover, the winners must pay attention to nonvoters as well as voters in their election when making their policy choices, in order to maximize their chances at reelection if not because they feel they should represent all. Thus, elections are just one means by which to influence on a certain policy. Yet in the case of a tax item, that is just one discrete decision where there is no delegation of authority to decide on behalf of the nonvoter and only one shot to influence. When asking citizens to decide on upon one issue of policy directly, government should attempt to maximize registered voter turnout as much as possible to ensure greater democratic integrity.
Especially when it can be done not just for free, but actually with cost savings. By creating an incentive for authorities to schedule optional tax elections on dates with officer elections that must be held regardless (except in the highly unlikely scenario where all officers have unopposed candidates), this negates the need to have to pay extra expenses in holding tax elections on their own dedicated days. Election activity on these days may be dispensed with while tax elections still get held, promoting efficient use of taxpayer resources.
And, this practice is not uncommon in the rest of the democratic world. For national referenda, the aforementioned Alpine countries, among others, have an even stricter standard that requires a double majority, of both proportion of registered voters and those who vote with approval, in order to put a measure onto their books. Many still succeed, so it seems not to create an insurmountable barrier to making policy both widely vetted and popular. Other American states also have implemented similar requirements to this bill.
Recognize that fear of losing revenues to support their jobs or activities by direct beneficiaries of taxes and of smaller, less powerful government by ideological fans of big government drives opposition to this bill, in that it would be less likely they could access the structural advantage in these matters they now enjoy. Regardless, SB 200 makes all the sense in the world in that it will not affect the ability to impose taxes truly necessary and desired by the public, and probably will cost taxpayers less in the process, all the while promoting democratic governance, thus meriting its becoming law.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:00