The 2013 Values Voter Summit was where irony went to hi-five itself, given the two things today’s Republican Party lacks: values and voters. The annual summit is the Christian Right’s quest to identify its standard-bearer and presumptive nominee for 2016. If you’ve read the transcripts, you will know how far from the mainstream the Republican Party’s leaders and its base are from the attitudes held by a majority of Americans.
Rand Paul chose not to talk about today’s pressing economic issues, and instead talked about a religious crusade. The Senator from Kentucky opened with, “From Boston to Zanzibar, there is a worldwide war on Christianity.” The spiritual leader of the Tea Party and Heritage Foundation CEO, Jim DeMint, said, “Gay marriage is unconstitutional,” and questioned the validity of the Separation of Church and State. Rick Santorum called Obamacare’s contraception mandate “a descendent of the French revolution.” Michele Bachmann linked the government shutdown to Benghazi. Allen West tied secular humanism to high murder rates. Mike Huckabee said America will “answer to God for abandoning the nation of Israel.” Ted Cruz said, “The Obama administration is determined to violate every one of our Christian rights.” Ultimately, these were the saner remarks. Conservative columnist Star Parker said, “Liberals are enemies of God, and are at war with the American people.”
It’s because of these hyper-religious radicals that we find the government approaching its fourth week of closure, and the economy on the brink of an unthinkable debt default.
There is, however, an easy way to safeguard our democracy from those who wish to subvert it: MAKE VOTING MANDATORY.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, thirty-one countries have some form of mandatory voting. Including the country of my birth – Australia. Americans, however, remain deeply skeptical of mandatory voting. According to an ABC poll, 72 percent of the U.S. population does not wish to give up the freedom to stay at home on Election Day. Ironically, the people who are most opposed to mandatory voting are typically the same people who wear those “Freedom Isn’t Free” t-shirts.
In short, mandatory voting works. Conversely, voluntary voting doesn’t. Today, America is more politically polarized than any other time in its history with the exception of the Civil War. You can blame this extreme polarization on non-mandatory voting. Why? In America, political operatives and strategists focus on the respective party’s bases: how to rally the turnout of the party’s ideological base while suppressing the turnout of the other side. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, authors of ‘It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism’, write, “Nothing has forced discourse and political strategy away from the center to the extreme more than that focus. It has encouraged a concentration on hot-button issues that appeal to the party’s bases, like guns, abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage, and led to more and more extreme rhetoric and exaggerated positions to accomplish the larger political goals.”
William Galston of the Brookings Institute also makes the case that mandatory voting would temper the polarization of our politics. In America today, hardcore partisan believers are over-represented; independents and moderates are under-represented. If the full range of voters actually voted, our political leaders, who are obsessive poll watchers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes.
Vocal opponents of mandatory voting assert that widening democracy to a greater number of uninformed voters will result in electing less informed candidates. What, less informed than the 80-odd Tea Party Republicans in the House today? Less enlightened than the speakers and audience at the Values Voter Summit? And isn’t that argument un-democratic in itself? In Australia, where the vote is mandatory, people tend to be reasonably well informed about their political choices because they know they must vote. Australians are instilled with the idea that voting is a social and democratic obligation. Typically, Australian elections have a turnout rate of more than 95 percent, with roughly 3 percent voting for “none of the above.” This has resulted in both the two major political parties traveling down the narrow corridors that run either side of the ideological center divide; as such, politicians and the media tend not to pander to the extremists on the fringes.
Of course, those on the radical right will call anything that is mandatory un-American. But as Eric Liu of Time points out, “jury duty, going to school, and taxpaying” are mandatory, so there’s that. Moreover, mandatory voting would eliminate the anti-democratic and underhanded voter suppression tactics employed by the Republican Party.
Americans like to believe their country is the greatest experiment of democracy the world has ever known. It isn’t! It isn’t when you consider low turnout rates, disenfranchisement of minorities, the disproportionate influence that corporations and special interests have over elections and candidates; and that the Christian Right, who is the most agitated and reliable voting bloc in the U.S. today, can shutdown the federal government because they didn’t get what they wanted in the past two general elections: anyone but a black dude.
Freedom isn’t free, and mandatory voting is very small price to pay in order to receive a healthy and thriving democracy in return.