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6.2.04

Mandatory Voting

PinkDreamPoppies suggests a number of reforms that might improve the American electoral system. Some are no-brainers that will never get passed, like eliminating the electoral college and instant-runoff voting. Others I'm not so sure about -- for example, mandatory voting. I'm against mandatory voting primarily because I see it as an act of responsibility to stay home on election day if you don't know enough to cast an intelligent vote. If nothing else, it saves society the cost of all those people taking the time and gas to go to the polling station and cast a meaningless vote. I certainly don't buy PDP's idea that benefitting from government services implies a responsibility to contribute to the system at the ballot box -- taxes and obeying the laws seem sufficient reciprocation.

One additional argument that I initially thought weighed against mandatory voting was the effect of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. In the present American system, because people have the option of staying home, candidates have to invest effort not only in making people prefer them over their opponent, but in making people care enough to show up to vote. This can help keep parties loyal to their base, because if they focus too much on the center, the base may figure it doesn't matter who wins and stay home. But if the government is doing the work of GOTV, candidates can count on their base to see them as the lesser of two evils. Further, they don't have to inspire people, to create the (granted, usually fraudulent) image that they can bring big and meaningful change to the cynical ways of politics as usual.

On the other hand, mandatory voting would also stifle efforts designed to depress voter turnout. Often politicians will make the race as cynical as possible in the hopes of turning off most voters, if they calculate that smaller turnout would be beneficial because the more committed voters lean differently than the larger population.

The effect would be somewhat nullified if we accepted PinkDreamPoppies' additional suggestion of allowing a vote for "nobody." It wouldn't be quite the same, though, because the cost of picking a real candidate versus voting "nobody" is equal, the cost of picking a real candidate over staying home is significant, and thus the threshold of caring is shifted. If people have to be there anyway, they're more likely to figure they might as well pick the guy with the nicer haircut. Voting "nobody" is more symbolically meaningful, and thus less likely to be done out of apathy, than just not bothering to show up -- indeed, that's the reason many people want the "nobody" option. Incidentally, I would think that an instant runoff system that allowed "nobody" votes (or any instant runoff system) should allow as many "nobody" votes as you want. So for example, you could say "I prefer Nader, second choice Gore, and if neither of them cross the threshold throw my vote out" instead of being forced to say "I prefer Nader, second choice Gore, third choice Bush, fourth choice Buchanan" and get stuck contributing to the Bush vs. Buchanan battle if they turned out to be the last two remaining.

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