Voter apathy isn't a crime

White House/Pete Souza

President Obama sits with former OMB Director Peter Orszag in the Oval Office.

Article Highlights

  • “It's a sure sign someone is losing when he demands that the rules be changed.” @JonahNRO

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  • According to former budget director Peter Orszag, a chief benefit of coerced voting is that it increases participation.

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  • Civic virtue depends on civic participation, and any reasonable understanding of civic participation includes voluntarism.

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It's a sure sign someone is losing when he demands that the rules be changed.

That might explain the renewed interest in making voting mandatory. Peter Orszag, President Obama's former budget director and now a vice chairman at Citigroup, recently wrote a column for Bloomberg View arguing for the government to force every eligible American to vote.

He's not alone. Icons of the Beltway establishment Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann also favor the idea. As does William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton (Mann and Galston are scholars at the liberal Brookings Institution; Ornstein is a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute).

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

While I have great respect for Ornstein, Mann and Galston — I'm undecided about Orszag — I find the idea absurd, cynical and repugnant.

Let's start with the repugnant part.

One of the chief benefits of coerced voting, according to Orszag, is that it increases participation. Well, yes, and kidnapping drunks in pubs increased the ranks of the British navy, but it didn't turn the conscripted sailors into patriots.

I think everyone can agree that civic virtue depends on civic participation. Well, any reasonable understanding of civic participation has to include the idea of voluntarism. If I force you to do the right thing against your will, you don't get credit for doing the right thing.

Let's move on to the absurdity. Ornstein and Mann suggest fining people, say $15, if they don't vote and using the proceeds to set up a lottery to bribe reluctant voters. If the old line that lotteries are taxes on stupid people is correct, then the upshot of this proposal is that the cure to what ails democracy is an influx of large numbers of stupid voters.

Even if all the people who play the lottery aren't stupid (I've bought my share of tickets), there's still a problem. Do we really think democracy will be improved by enlisting the opinions of Americans who otherwise wouldn't bother if there wasn't a jackpot in the offing?

This brings us to the cynicism of it all. While many political scientists and economists hold that mandatory voting probably wouldn't change electoral outcomes, many people still believe that compelling the poor, the uneducated and the politically unengaged would be a boon to Democrats (what that says about Democrats is for others to judge). I wonder: Would the winner of the ballot lottery have to show a photo ID?

It's hard to see how Orszag is interested in anything other than changing the rules for his side's benefit. As Reason magazine's Tim Cavanaugh notes, just last year Orszag argued for taking some policymaking out of the hands of voters and empowering technocrats — like him — to run the country. "We need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions," Orszag explained, "by making them a bit less democratic."

Ornstein and Mann, whose new book blames Republicans for all that's wrong in Washington, make a slightly different argument. They claim that coerced voting would revive the political center by reducing the influence of activists and ideologues.

Ultimately, this is a more sophisticated way of making the same argument. They do not like the way conservatives have been winning battles in Washington. Forcing people to vote, they hope, would put an end to that.

And it's worth noting that we are talking about making nonvoting a crime. If a citizen refuses to vote or pay the fine — and countless would — he would be breaking the law. How far would the government go to compel these citizens to pay up or comply? This is how the "experts" would make democracy healthier?

It's an unfashionable thing to say, but if anything, voting should be harder, not easier. Scarcity creates value. Sand is cheap because there's so much of it. Gold is valuable because it is rare. If you want people to value their vote, we should make it more valuable.

Personally, I wouldn't mind tying eligibility to vote to passing the same citizenship test we require of immigrants. We might get fewer voters, but the voters would be far more likely to appreciate the solemnity of their ballots.

But such proposals just elicit rage from people who love democracy — albeit only when they're winning.

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