Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Do It

Today’s Washington Post has 38 suggestions from a variety of people on “How to Fix American Democracy”“How to Fix American Democracy”. My favorite is by two Louisiana State professors. It’s the first one on the list: “Require Everyone to Vote”.

A more accurate title for their suggestion would have been “Make Voting Easier and Make Everyone Vote”. Their suggestion:

A long-standing defect in U.S. suffrage law is the treatment of the electoral franchise as a privilege that is denied too easily and often because of an ugly prejudice or a convenient pretext. Let’s re-imagine the democratic right of voting as a citizen’s obligation. In our doppelganger ally down under, Australia, voting is compulsory. They have far higher turnouts, and their elections boast greater legitimacy.

We can and should make it much easier to carry out this civic duty: Keep polls open for an entire week, not a single day, and make sure that polling places are easily available — distributed across states according to population density. In addition, let’s expand mail-in voting (which is how citizens who serve in the military routinely vote). Public transportation to the polls should be free. A national registry of voters can be created if hospitals automatically submit birth certificates; this way, voters could be identified by their Social Security number, and arbitrary state requirements could not be used to unfairly penalize them. Anyone who fails to cast a ballot would be subject to a fine, the funds from which could be used to support the costs incurred by this compulsory program.

Instead of permitting voter suppression, which stands out as a blemish on our less-than-fully-democratic system, we should be defining the voter as a national citizen. In reversing the emphasis from suspicion of fraud to across-the-board inclusion, we would come closer to being a “representative democracy” — what we’ve always claimed we are. And at least we’ll be able to say with greater authority that candidates look foolish (or bigoted) when they refuse to consider the interests of the entire body of citizens.

Like most improvements, this has little chance of being adopted until the Democrats control all three branches of the government. But individual states could implement it immediately.

Since young people vote less than old people, and poor people vote less than rich people, making everyone vote would increase the percentage of voters who are young or poor. I think that would be a very good thing to do, but maybe people who don’t bother to vote now because they aren’t interested in politics or don’t follow the news would be bad at voting.

Another suggestion (“Persuade Voters to Keep Clicking”) includes thoughts about ill-informed voters:

Inept, corrupt or extremist political leaders are harming our democracy. So, too, are the voters who don’t check if what they are reading, hearing or viewing is true. Our democracy’s problems are not just caused by bad leaders but also by indolent voters.

Citizens who don’t care about politics have always existed. As have those who vote without knowing much about who or what they are voting for — or against. But things have changed. Today, the failure of these voters to “click again” and find out more about their choices threatens all of us. The Internet makes apathetic voters especially vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues, particular interests or even foreign powers.

The Founding Fathers worried about the impact of the uneducated or ill-informed on American democracy. James Madison argued, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson hoped that education would be the antidote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

It is a paradox of our time: Information has never been easier to find and yet we have all become more vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The Internet is both a marvelous source of insights and a toxic channel through which weaponized lies freely circulate.

That’s why the author of this last suggestion and several other contributors say we need to make sure voters are better-informed. One of them, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, says we should teach critical thinking skills to every student every year. I’m in favor of making Americans smarter and better thinkers, but it would be quicker and probably more effective to make 24-hour cable “news” channels like Fox News and CNN illegal.