At least not right now.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, has his eyes on the long game. That’s why he’s sponsoring HB452 in this year’s legislative session, knowing full well it won’t go anywhere, at least not now.
It includes a lot of caveats. If you don’t vote, you would get a letter asking if you had a valid reason. Provide one, and you would be excused. There would be an appeals process.
But still, mandatory voting? Really?
“I don’t anticipate this is something that will make people say, ‘Oh, why haven’t we thought of this before?’” Briscoe said when I reached him by phone. “This will be a long process. I’m just throwing this out to say, could this fix some of our problems?”
Those problems include the obvious — a political system filled with anger, nasty campaign tactics, distrust and vilification. They also include the less obvious, such as low voter turnout. Briscoe said some Utahns seem satisfied because turnout was high in the last three election cycles, but they misunderstand. Last year’s midterm elections attracted a 64.2% turnout statewide, according to state figures reported by Axios. But that was the percentage of registered voters, not of everyone over 18 who was eligible.
“Over 500,000 people in Utah are not registered to vote,” he said. “A big chunk of Utahns are not participating.”
Briscoe notes the government already requires people to serve on juries. “We don’t just pick people who want to serve,” he said. “If you’re accused of a crime, we want a cross-section of people in the community to judge you.”
Arguably, the same principle could apply to selecting the men and women who will have the power to pass laws and force us to pay taxes.
Except, of course, that this is the United States, not Australia. Americans, especially the current bunch, have an aversion to authority. To some, the decision not to cast a ballot is a vote in and of itself. It’s a statement, either of dislike for the current crop of candidates or for the system itself. They would argue, with some merit, that this is an important freedom.
Briscoe’s bill would allow such people to cast a blank ballot to satisfy the law. Even some Australians satisfy their requirement by covering their ballots in, shall we say, impolite verbiage, and handing them in.
One endearing Australian tradition, described in a New York Times piece on compulsory voting in 2018, involves serving “democracy sausages” at polling stations, fresh off grills supplied by local community groups.
Think of it as a kind of Election Day tailgating ritual. The sausages are a clever play on the old adage that says democracy is like the making of sausages; It’s best not to watch the process too closely.
But I doubt even sausages would get Americans to cozy up to the idea of compulsory voting, or of being fined for not playing along.
Right now, the idea tends to be supported mainly by the political left. Briscoe points to a book by liberal writer E.J. Dionne and Harvard professor Miles Rapoport called “100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting.”
But Briscoe notes that, in Australia, the idea was first pushed by conservatives more than 100 years ago, worried about the burgeoning power of labor unions. Making everyone vote wouldn’t necessarily help the left or the right, he said. But he believes it would make elections more civil.
Negative campaigning only accomplishes one thing, he said. It makes people not vote.
“If you knew 90 percent or more of the people were going to turn in a ballot, would you be more likely to say, ‘Here are my reasons why you should vote for me?’”
My gut tells me that forcing Americans to do something isn’t going to make that thing better. Forcing people to vote won’t necessarily make them informed voters.
Still, I admire politicians who want to persuade us to embrace something unpopular, even if it seems to work in a nice place like Australia.
Briscoe said he’s had even good friends tell him he’s crazy. But he’s unfazed.
“You shouldn’t run for office if you don’t want people to criticize you,” he said.