Thursday, August 10, 2006

Looney Ideas

There is no denying that participation in American elections is on the decline. The percentage participating in the recent California primary was the lowest in several decades. This is in spite of efforts to loosen the franchise. Efforts to assure probity in voting are decried - so identification at polling places is limited or not at all. Registration is as ubiquitious as credit card offers or emails promising Nigerian riches. And yet voting continues to decline.

In today's New York Times, Norman Ornstein, who is otherwise known as sane, makes an odd suggestion. Ornstein believes as I do that legislative bodies spend a lot of their time on silly issues. In his oped he reels off several of the nutty ideas that took front and center in the Congress. He also believes that the influence of campaign consultants is negative. He is also bothered by a decreasing ability of elected officials to figure out how to come together on an issue. For the US system, politics is no longer about reasonable solutions but debating points. So with all those points of agreement (and I agree with each of the points above) Orenstein comes to the following conclusion -

"If there were mandatory voting in America, there’s a good chance that the ensuing reduction in extremist discourse would lead to genuine legislative progress. These days, valuable Congressional time is spent on frivolous or narrow issues (flag burning, same-sex marriage) that are intended only to spur on the party bases and ideological extremes. Consequently, important, complicated issues (pension and health-care reform) get short shrift."

Ornstein argues that Australia is a good example of the positive consequences of such a move. He writes -

"In the Australian system, registered voters who do not show up at the polls either have to provide a reason for not voting or pay a modest fine, the equivalent of about $15. The fine accelerates with subsequent offenses. The result, however, is a turnout rate of more than 95 percent. The fine, of course, is an incentive to vote. But the system has also instilled the idea that voting is a societal obligation."

There are a couple of obvious questions. FIrst how does Australia compare to the US? Yes, both are immigrant nations - although with a very large land mass (the sixth largest country) the continent has but 20 million inhabitants (or about half the size of California). Contrary to what most Americans think about Australia, almost a third of the people are from either first or second generation immigrant families. (6 million) Current migration rate is just under 4/1000 and population growth is 0.85%, it is also 92% Caucasian. (The comparable US numbers are about 3.18/1000 for migration, population growth of 0.91% and 82% Caucasian. The US numbers on immigrants are about 33 million total(Census numbers in 2002) but that does not suggest whether those are only first generation.) Interestingly, the official language of Australia is English - although that is by custom not by law. One could make the case that, although the country is much smaller in terms of population, there are similar demographics.

Why does he believe that the addition of even less interested voters would tend toward the center - toward moderation? Would univolved voters be even more likely to simply vote on a whim? There is a rich body of literature on voting behavior (especially in public choice economics) that would suggest that his proposal might make American politics even more wacky. The influence of money would still be there. With our loose registration system - where records are only occasionally purged, and with the casual nature of some voters - what you might get to is more of the "passions of the people" that Madison talked about in Federalist #10. The founders created a series of checks and balances in the federal system to reduce the influence of public policy whims. But those devices, like the electoral college and the indirect election of Senators, have either been abolished or are under serious pressure.

There is one other point here. Can Ornstein demonstrate that any mandatory expression builds civic responsibility? Do we really care more about what our government spends because taxes are mandatory? Were politicians more responsibile in exercising the war power when there was a mandatory draft? There are many observers of politics that are worried about the increasingly extreme nature of the political discourse and the loss, not of a center (I am not sure what a moderate is - Goldwater said it best when he commented in the 1964 election - "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." ) but of politicians who are willing to consider other points of view. The nonsense in this morning's blogs by some of the looney left - that the terror alert increase is a result of LIeberman losing the primary on Tuesday - is but one example. Campaign finance laws, that tried to regulate political speech and "soft money" only to create more soft money is an example of unexpected consequences. All of us would support an increase in civil discourse - but forcing citizens to vote is not the way.

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