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The Mandatory Voting Panacea

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Is mandatory voting coming into vogue? New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has touted compulsory balloting, and President Obama suggested last March that mandatory voting could cure some of the ills of American democracy. Obama said that compelling everyone to vote would “encourage more participation” — perhaps the same way that the specter of prison sentences encourages more people to pay taxes. While there are many good reasons to oppose mandatory voting, compulsory balloting could help Americans recognize what their political system has become.

Obama declared that “the people who tend not to vote” are “skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups … and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls.” Minorities’ voter-turnout supposedly justifies destroying everyone’s freedom in the name of equality. The fact that blacks had a higher turnout rate than whites in the 2012 presidential election is not permitted to interrupt the progressive victimization narrative.

Obama declared, “It would be transformative if everybody voted” and “would counteract [campaign] money more than anything.” He also said that politicians’ raising heaps of money “just degrades our democracy generally.” For Obama, political fundraising is degrading — but mass coercion is not.

Obama stressed, “We have to think about what are other creative ways to reduce the influence of money” in politics. But he is referring only to private campaign contributions. He has never shown any itch to curtail politicians’ ability to use tax dollars to buy votes. Instead, his programs and policies have vastly increased dependency on the federal government — creating a “gift that will keep on giving” to the Democratic Party for years to come. Mandatory voting would entitle politicians to punish citizens who refuse to vote for politicians. Essentially, anyone who did not formally consent to submit to the approved candidates would be considered to be committing a crime against his fellow citizens. Many citizens boycott polling booths because they consider politicians the nation’s preeminent pathological liars. But mandatory-voting laws would prohibit any “conscientious objection” to forced endorsement of one of the rascals who got his name on the ballot.

Most surveys show that nonvoters are less well-informed than voters. Politicians have long been accustomed to prey on ignorant voters, and it would require only a minor rhetorical tweak to appeal to complete know-nothings. As long as the final count is tens of millions of votes higher, politicians and their media lackeys will proclaim victory for a new, more-inclusive democracy.

Obama’s trial balloon excited some of his core supporters. A commentator at the left-wing Dailykos.com declared, “A national mandatory voting law would certainly be obstructed by Republicans, but it could be useful to have them all on record objecting to all citizens’ exercising their voting rights.” But what sort of “right” gets people in jail for failing to perform on command for their rulers? If there was a federal law requiring everyone attending a sports event to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at full volume, that would make a louder chorus — but it would do nothing to redeem either the anthem or the nation. An article on left-leaning Vox.com noted that mandatory voting “would, by definition, mean that more Americans’ views are represented in government.” But is there any reason to expect politicians to pay more attention after more people are dragooned to polling places? The civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s ensured that far more black citizens could vote — but that did not deter Congress from enacting mandatory-minimum drug laws that consigned far more nonviolent blacks to long prison terms.

Obama declared in a June 4, 2014, speech in Warsaw, Poland, that “a leader’s legitimacy can only come from the consent of the people.” Making voting mandatory would obliterate any illusion of “consent,” but few people would notice the change. Only 19 percent of Americans said the federal government has “the consent of the governed,” according to a 2014 Rasmussen Reports poll.

Most citizens do not believe that the government has “the consent of the governed” because the rulers brazenly disdain the values and preferences of the citizenry. Polls show that not since 1964 have a majority of Americans favored increasing the size and power of the federal government. But politicians have perennially scorned voters’ preference and continually enlarged the arsenal of penalties and prohibitions bureaucrats deploy against private citizens. Presidents and congressmen prattle that their actions embody the “will of the people” — even though no citizen asked to be fettered with an $18 trillion national debt.

Earlier this year, Obama scorned the majority of citizens who did not bother voting in last November’s midterm election. He declared, “Staying home is not an option. And being cynical is not an option. And just waiting for somebody else — whether it’s the president, or Congress, or somebody — to get it done, that’s not enough.” But Obama does not have clean hands: his actions — such as his lies regarding National Security Agency spying, his drone killings, or his torture cover-up — have fed the cynicism which he bewails. While the president has lost his reputation for candor, Congress is held in even greater contempt: Congress’s approval rating is consistently among the lowest of all professions — even worse than journalists.

According to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Voting is the most precious right of every citizen.” But voting is a hollow rite when election winners scorn their oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Obama has made it clear that high-ranking government officials will not be prosecuted when they are caught in brazen crimes; so why should citizens continue playing their role to maintain the façade that we have a republic? Voting levers cannot legitimize violations of rights.

Politicians could not even suggest making voting mandatory unless vast numbers of Americans had become politically illiterate. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, presidents have conflated voting and freedom — as if they were two sides of the same coin. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), in a speech on Obama’s first inauguration day, proclaimed, “The freedom of a people to choose its leaders is the root of liberty.” Since this freedom is so important, the best way to safeguard it is to make it mandatory. And as long as the government obliges people to register a preference for the commander in chief, then people are supposedly free — no matter how much power the president subsequently seizes.

Popular perceptions of the purpose of elections have profoundly changed over the past 200 years. Law professor John Phillip Reid, author of The Concept of Representation in the Age of the American Revolution, observed, “At the time of the American Revolution, elections were seen as a means for people to protect themselves against rulers — kings, ministers, or any other official wrongdoer.” The Founding Fathers viewed elections as one of the most important leashes that citizens could attach to politicians. Reid noted, “Eighteenth-century representation was primarily an institution of restraint on governmental power.” Early American voters expected congressmen to protect them from the ravages of the executive branch. But any such hope of constraining government by using ballots seems like a relic of the horse-and-buggy era. Instead, voting is becoming more like a medieval act of fealty — with citizens obliged to promise unlimited obedience to whoever is proclaimed the winner.

Since the government now claims a right to punish citizens for almost everything, perhaps it is only appropriate to add nonvoting to the roster of official crimes. Making voting compulsory could codify the true relation between politicians and citizens.

If citizens are dragooned into the polling booths, the system could be redeemed by requiring every voter to sign a statement swearing that he voted voluntarily. Prosecutors often require similar far-fetched statements from people they browbeat into signing plea bargains. Almost all judges accept the fiction that such pleas are voluntary, and there is no reason why similar oaths by voters would not eventually pass muster. Alternatively, after casting a ballot, each voter could be required to kneel before giant photos of the candidates and proclaim, “Thank you for my freedom, Masters!”

Any new voting process should be designed to be both transparent and uplifting. Instead of simply sending violators a ticket a few weeks after an election, political candidates could walk the streets on the day after an election and use Tasers on anyone who could not prove he had voted. As long as the punishments are labeled “freedom shocks,” no decent citizen would have a right to object. But it would be important to set the voltage level low enough to avoid fatalities that could be exploited by cynics and civil-liberties extremists.

The real “voting rights” problem is that it is infinitely easier for politicians to bind citizens than for citizens to bind politicians. How can there be free elections in an increasingly unfree society?

Nowadays, we have elections in lieu of freedom. For a long time, national elections have offered little more than two political parties who take turns trampling rights and plundering the Treasury. No law should be passed to compel voting until after we discover a method to compel politicians to be honest. And that will happen about the same time that the devil gets his own ice hockey team.

America is far closer today to what the Founding Fathers dreaded — “slavery by constitutional forms.” Most of what the government does has little or nothing to do with “the will of the people.” If we want a new birth of freedom, we must cease glorifying oppressive political machinery.

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James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at www.jimbovard.com  This essay was originally published by Future of Freedom Foundation.

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