Forcing us to vote is hardly a cure-all

by | Mar 22, 2015 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This past week, the president who is forcing Americans to have health care coverage suggested maybe they should be forced to vote.

“It would be transformative,” President Barack Obama told a crowd in Cleveland.

It would be transformative. It would transform this country into something it’s never been.

And it will never happen. Australia may make its citizens vote under penalty of fine or even jail, Bolivia may threaten your paycheck, Belgium may threaten your future job prospects, but the U.S. will never hold a sword over its citizens’ heads. Not for an issue that this country was founded upon.

Freedom to choose your leaders.

It’s no surprise Obama had to retreat from his comments a day after he made them. For one thing, experts now suggest forced voting could prove unconstitutional (free speech, etc.). Moreover, there is nothing that unites Americans more than lawmakers telling them what to do in the few areas they haven’t done it already.

Voting — or not voting — is one of them.

Which, in a way, is a shame. Because what Obama wants — 100% turnout — is a worthwhile idea. How much better would this country be if we all voted? How much more vested would its citizens feel? How much more could we say we are “part of the process” if we pulled a lever as quickly as we post a nasty comment?

Just who isn’t voting?

But forcing people, sadly, is not the way. When Obama said, “If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country,” he wasn’t incorrect. Poor people, young people and certain minorities are the least represented in voter registration.

But it may not be the way you think.

Before Obama’s critics assume he’s trying to get more African Americans to the polls, U.S. Census Bureau figures analyzed by show that blacks are just behind whites in terms of voter registration (70% vs. 73.5%). It is actually Asians, often cited as the major ethnic group most actively climbing the American dream ladder, that have the lowest registration (55%, less than Hispanics at 59%).

And age clearly is a factor. People 18-24 have the lowest registration (58.5%), while the numbers climb steadily up to 65-74-year-olds (78%).

Wealth and education level also matter. The more Americans have of each, the higher percentage of registration.

Which suggests that the older, smarter and better off you get, the more concerned you are likely to be about the future of this country.

Obama, in his force-them-to-vote idea, might be expressing partisan desires; pundits believe our unregistered masses would largely vote Democratic. (I’m not so sure, by the way. There are plenty of conservative minorities and conservative high school dropouts.)

But when the president says forcing people to vote “would counteract (campaign) money more than anything,” he is being naive.

If anything, it might make things worse.

Lowest common denominator

As it is, politics is so overrun by money, elected officials only reach office if they are independently rich or are beholden to those who paid to get them there.

Forcing everyone to vote would shoot costs to the moon. TV ads would become increasingly important (how else to reach large numbers and keep the message simple?) and TV already costs a fortune. Imagine campaigns needing countless ads in multiple languages? More travel? More appearances? The only savings might be in get-out-the-vote costs, but those would be offset by the huge cost of catering to the uninterested.

Because let’s face it. Forcing someone to do something doesn’t make them engaged. Only 37% of eligible Americans cared enough to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. Imagine campaigns pandering to the 63% that might be dragging their bodies to a booth? We actually could get dumber, meaner, more cash-draining rhetoric than we have right now — just trying to get people who don’t care to lean one way or the other.

By the way, Australia also allows something called “informal” voting, which includes turning in a blank ballot. How many of these might America get if that was an option?

There is one thing we can take from the Aussies: Saturday voting. Over 17% of Americans who don’t vote say it’s because of conflicts or inconvenience. Why do we stick to the archaic Tuesday elections — when work is increasingly precious and less flexible than ever?

Why not try weekend voting? And real — I mean real — campaign finance reform that limits the barrage of negative ads that turn voters off.

At least that’s a beginning. Forcing Americans to vote is not. It feels more like an end.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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