Worst System in the World Except for All the Others
The other day, Barack Obama, President of the United States, commander-in-chief, leader of the free world and don’t forget head of the Democratic Party tossed a throwaway line into a speech. He wondered about the merits of mandatory voting, as exists in a few other countries, most notably Australia.
If you have a gauzy idea of democracy, fueled in part by endless repetitions of Winston Churchill’s famous worst system in the world except for all the others quote, this sounds like a splendid idea.
It works more or less like this: you show up to vote or you get fined a relatively small sum of money like $10. For those who worry about voter identification cards and voter suppression, a plan like this would seem to require a very specific registration attached to some sort of payment mechanism, which might just leave some people out. Finding those who might not be enthusiastic about being found could also be a head scratcher for voter registration officials.
Mandatory voting requires a bureaucracy to frog march the unwilling to the polling place and flog them into submission by making them choose among candidates about whom they know nothing. Or at least care nothing.
Republicans are terrorized by this idea out of fear that the parade of frog marched voters will reliably pull the lever for those who promise the most free stuff. It is unlikely to be them.
Libertarians are terrorized by the idea of forcing anyone, including frog marchers, to be told to do anything. Especially by the government.
Democrats think this might result in more votes for their side, but Charlie Cook, a noted political consultant, suggests that all of them may be wrong. In his view, nonvoters look pretty much like voters and, while they might add to the totals, they would not change many outcomes.
In response to the handwringing about low voter turnout in the United States, Cook observes that we already vote for way too many things. He confesses that he — who makes a living from predicting the behavior of voters — often goes to the polls to choose between candidates about whom he knows nothing and cares less.
Why bother? Except to support the campaigning industry.
Here’s another idea along with a highly fashionable — at least in academic circles — trigger warning: full-scale downpour caused by the flying spit of the enraged to follow. Also yelling and screaming.
Allow disinterested voters to sell their votes to those who are more interested.
Before flying completely off the handle, remember that we already do this. Tammany Hall existed to buy votes and the going rate for a vote in New Orleans is a $5.00 gift coupon at Popeye’s. Care to discuss politics in Chicago or Boston?
How much more efficient would it be to simply buy the necessary votes with actual cash paid to the voters themselves rather than buying them through the incredibly inefficient mechanism of false television advertising, opposition research, campaign strategizing and general spinning? The poor voter actually gets nothing out of the current system other than a wait in a long line to choose between candidates about whom he might be either clueless, misinformed or disinterested.
As with so much an American life, this idea is greatly facilitated by advent of the Internet. A free market would develop and some votes would clearly become more valuable than others. For example, it would be far too expensive to buy the necessary Democratic votes to make a difference in Wyoming so the value of a vote in that state would be virtually zero. By the same token, an effort to buy the votes necessary to elect a Republican congressman in Brooklyn, Berkeley or Boulder would be equally fruitless.
Instead of hiring professionals to say nasty things about your opponent, political campaigns could staff up with those wonderful individuals who price airline tickets depending upon supply and demand. All they would have to do is reverse the algorithms to determine the amount a candidate should be willing to pay for the small number of votes he was expected to need at any given point in the campaign. The clever vote seller might follow the market to determine the most opportune moment to appoint someone else to exercise the franchise for him.
Imagine how much easier it might be for Coke or Pepsi if every person in the United States were required to drink one or the other every day. So it is with the Democrats and Republicans, who have created equally bad products. Forcing people to buy them is low on the list of good answers. Unless one of your roles is head of the Democratic Party and even then you might be wrong.