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.



7 Responses to “Worst System in the World Except for All the Others”

Sellers McKee, March 22, 2015 at 11:14 pm said:

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, where I lived for 30 years. The idea is universally loathed, as is the government itself. One more example that people don’t particularly enjoy coercion.
What happens there, however, lends credence to your speculation that, if forced, the masses will vote for whoever promises them the most. The recently re-elected Predisent is a convicted felon with a relatively full rap-sheet. Who cares?


Haven Pell, March 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm said:

Thanks Sellers, a little real world experience is always helpful.


ctm, March 23, 2015 at 11:23 am said:

with bit coin the trading of vote shares could be very profitable and open the door for a much needed third party.
or we could just vote for everything a nd shut down the congress.


Haven Pell, March 23, 2015 at 12:01 pm said:

that last idea would be a money saver


Haven Pell, March 23, 2015 at 1:21 pm said:

excerpt from referenced wikipedia entry: “Supporters of compulsory voting generally look upon voter participation as a civic duty, similar to taxation, jury duty, compulsory education or military service; one of the ‘duties to community’ mentioned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[4] They believe that by introducing an obligation to vote, it helps to overcome the occasional inconvenience that voting imposes on an individual in order to produce governments with more stability, legitimacy and a genuine mandate to govern, which in turn benefits that individual even if their preferred candidate or party isn’t elected into power.”

Question: is there a concomitant duty to be a good candidate?


Robert Henry Eller, March 23, 2015 at 4:11 pm said:

For those of us who may forget why we should vote.
Why it is vitally important (As in, vitally important for the health and welfare of the U.S.).
For all of us.
That all of us who do want to vote.
Should have no obstruction to voting placed in our way.
I suggest you see director Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” if you have not already done so.

If I’d make anything compulsory, I’d make watching “Selma” compulsory.
I’d particularly make the members of The U.S. Supreme Court watch “Selma.”

I suggest we will then have a better, more nuanced, discussion on compulsory, or any other kind, of voting. I’m not one to advocate force in many instances. But I would always advocate for whatever it took to make sure no one could use force, or guile, or whatever, to prevent people from voting.

(And if you are one who got, or is still, hung up, on some idea that LBJ was treated poorly by Ava DuVernay, read “Why ‘Selma’ Is More Than Fair To LBJ,” by Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, 22 January 2015)


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