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31.3.15

Compulsory voting, automatic registration bad ideas

Data surrounding recent local elections demonstrates why the compulsory voting idea floated by Pres. Barack Obama is a bad idea for Louisiana to adopt.



For example, in Bossier City, a whopping 6.6 percent of voters cast their ballots for two tax renewals to fund public safety services. In Caddo Parish, a special election and a couple of district tax measures prompted turnouts between 6 and 7 percent. In Ouachita Parish for district tax measures, stunningly-high 3.6 and 2.2 percentages bothered to participate. Such turnout is typical for these kinds of items, especially when there are no jurisdiction-wide or wider contests decided with them.



Obama had suggested that it would do the country good to be under some kind of scheme that required people to vote in elections, presumably along the lines of a place like Australia where people who do not cast a ballot in an election for all federal offices get fined a small amount, about US$16. He argued that this would “counteract money,” alleging that elections in the U.S. are not a product of rational decision-making by the electorate, but whoever spends the most.

Of course, the data flatly contradict that money buys elections; rather, money disproportionately gets attracted to quality candidates who by definition are more likely to win. Contrary to what Obama thinks, donors are not generally stupid nor irrational; most give because they think a candidate has what it takes to win.



Yet this scheme precisely would empower most the least informed and the least rational voters, those most easily swayed by demagoguery rather than their expending effort to inform and to deliberate themselves about their choices. This describes the picture of nonvoters, many of whom care so little about politics that they know almost, if not entirely, nothing about how government operates, or the candidates and interests involved. But they do respond most willingly to emotional appeals; does anybody seriously wish to put the fate of the nation, state, or local governments in the hands of such people who may comprise at least 30 percent of the potential presidential electorate?



This figure comes by way of extrapolation from Australian statistics, and points out another problem with the idea: people determined not to vote still can avoid it, and without paying the fine. While around 5 percent would rather pay the fine, a roughly equal proportion deliberately spoil their ballots to avoid it. So even this does not reach a goal of full participation.



If, in fact, this were possible. Constitutional scholars pretty much doubt a national law could do it, because of a right concatenated from the First Amendment not to participate in the political process and that states conduct elections. As essentially this part of the Bill of Rights has been incorporated to the states, it’s questionable whether they could do this in light of the amendment as well. Only a constitutional amendment with certainty could force this upon the public.



And keep in mind that registration in Australia and other places with compulsory voting also is compulsory. So, another legal change would have to happen to make compulsory voting widespread, where states would have to mandate registration; none comes close to demanding that now.



That is related to a bad bill filed for this session of the Louisiana Legislature, SB 44 by state Sen. Karen Peterson, that would require registration for anybody with a noncommercial drivers’ license, allowing for opting out and party affiliation by return request. Using these registrants’ identities, who likely would care little about their registration, voting by mail would become a vast conduit for potential fraud, as well as through provisional ballots cast on the basis of not having picture identification at the polls. Criminal use aside, this would mimic in a diluted way compulsory voting, where those hardly invested in the political process and who are registered only because of having a license easily could be swayed by emotive arguments, putting a premium on rhetoric rather than analysis in a campaign (as if rhetoric already did not play such a large role in these).



Applying the idea to a local election such as just witnessed would illustrate the potential for small groups swaying these relatively non-invested voters. What if an anti-tax shill whipped up a frenzy among those minimally, if at all, informed about local government by decrying this voting to tax yourself and sucked in these otherwise indifferent people to vote against these renewals, only paying attention and casting ballots because they had to vote and/or get registered, and having them outnumber the majorities that actually turned out last weekend?



Both compulsory voting and near-compulsory registration carry malign consequences for governments and the polities they govern. Neither should come into force.

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