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shutterstock_103487231As citizens, we all have responsibilities that must be fulfilled for the nation to be protected and function optimally. However, the obligations at this point in our history are relatively minimal. All men (both citizens and immigrants) between ages 18 and 26 have to sign up for the Selective Service and if drafted have to serve in the armed forces. But the chances of currently being drafted are virtually nil.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), we now have an all voluntary military with no drafting of men and women who do not wish to serve. However, this means that the majority of young people do not serve the nation in any capacity, loosening the connections and feelings of patriotism that citizens of past generations had for America. It also means that Americans of different social and educational classes do not mix, an opportunity wasted to give all citizens an understanding of the great diversity of the nation, and how other Americans live and think. In addition, Americans no longer have an understanding of the physical and emotional hardships military service members undergo, putting their lives on the line for the nation. The Armed Forces were truly democratic when every American had to serve and face similar dangers and hardships. Now instead of everyone being involved, the nation pays a small group of patriotic Americans to protect the rest of us.

Other responsibilities are for Americans to sign up for a state driver’s license if they want to drive a car or a gun license if they want to own a weapon. They must also have auto insurance if they’re going to drive and health insurance if the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is ruled constitutional. Paying taxes, deductions for Social Security and Medicare are also mandatory. But all in all, Americans do not have a host of responsibilities they must meet in exchange for citizenship. And it appears as if succeeding generations of Americans are less patriotic and care less about America than those who fought the Nazis in World War Two and lived through the disturbing days of the Cold War. Perhaps the words of John Kennedy’s inaugural speech have been forgotten- “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”

I think it is time and important that America make more demands of its citizens and not allow citizenship to be purely a passive process. First of all, registration for voting should be automatic for every American citizen. As in Oregon, any citizen who gets a driver’s license should be registered to vote. But that also should include citizens who receive any documents from the federal or state governments such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, gun licenses, fishing or hunting licenses, and so forth.

And with virtually every citizen registered, voting should be mandatory. America has the lowest proportion of its citizenry voting of any advanced industrialized nation, generally below 40 percent in mid-term elections and around 60 percent in presidential years. It is certainly not a hardship to demand that citizens participate in the electoral process, by absentee ballot or at the ballot box. Currently, twenty-two nations have compulsory voting, with fines in most countries for those who don’t vote. (The downside of this system is that you have many people voting who are ignorant of the candidates and the issues.)

Vaccinations should also be mandatory for all school children and all citizens. The health of the nation is more important than individual beliefs and there is no reason why polio, measles, whooping cough, tetanus, and so forth, should damage or kill any American. Multiple medical studies have shown that the benefits far outweigh possible negative effects (allergic reactions).

There are also citizens who believe (as do I) that all young Americans (between 18 and 24) should serve a period of obligatory national service, either in the military or in some civilian capacity. Every American should contribute a year of his or her life serving the nation, in the military, teaching, working with the elderly, in a conservation corps, medical practice, nursing, and so forth. This would also be a chance for Americans of different social and economic groups to meet and interact.

Citizenship should be a two-way street. As well as the benefits and rights Americans have as citizens, there should also be obligations and responsibilities for everyone.

Resurrecting Democracy

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ROBERT A. LEVINE, TMV Columnist
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Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice
  • Rambie

    The word “mandatory” will make some rebel against it. But I agree with the idea of getting higher voter turnout and making the voting day a national holiday could help as could encourage states to go with a Oregon type mail voting system.

    My county in 2014 did a “test” for the state using a mail-in primary & general system (polls were also open on voting day). It seemed to help get more people to vote: http://kuer.org/post/vote-mail-option-success-davis-county.

  • tidbits

    First, mandatory national service for two years makes sense, but could be a budget buster. It would be interesting to see a detailed proposal.

    Here’s an idea for voting to go with auto-registration. Instead of mandating voting with fines, try a more positive approach. You need to vote to qualify for government benefits like government guaranteed mortgages, small business loans, health insurance subsidies, SNAP, Social Security, Medicare (caid), etc. Tie government benefits to citizen participation, with necessary exceptions of course. It would have the added impact of educating all Americans about the extent to which they benefit from government programs.

    • adelinesdad

      But I wonder how this would be implemented in practice. Would we really allow people to go without if they didn’t vote in the last election (and reasonably could have)? Or do they just need to promise to vote in the next one?

      • tidbits

        Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful reply. Please note that my much-abbreviated proposal says “with necessary exceptions of course.” Those who cannot vote due to physical or mental restriction might be an exemption point. Likewise, I certainly would not take food or education from children for the voting lapses of a parent(s).

        But, overall the point I’m trying to make is that, if you want to benefit from government programs, it should not be too much to ask that you vote. If one doesn’t want to vote, don’t ask for a federally subsidized home mortgage…for example. It seems improper from my perspective to say “I want benefits from the government, but want libertarianism from the government when it is my turn to be a responsible citizen.” Especially when the responsibility is as relatively simple as voting.

        Too many people, my opinion, want the benefits without the responsibilities. Sorry for adopting such a traditionally conservative position, but it is just my view.

        • adelinesdad

          I realize that you are making a general proposal and so it may not be fair of me to pin you down on specifics, but it just seems to me that the devil would be in the details on this one. You can make exemptions but that takes some teeth out of it, and there will always be those who still don’t vote (for whatever frivolous non-exempt reason) but yet really need state aid. For some, a fine would have been easier to bear than this “positive” approach.

          But that aside, It feels overly paternalistic to me to withhold benefits from people who meet all the relevant criteria just because they don’t share our view of our social obligation, or choose not to act on it. As I said in my other comment, it feels too close to social engineering and/or thought policing.

          It also doesn’t help that I question whether it would be beneficial anyway. Is an uninformed vote better than a non-vote? We could hope that being forced (in some sense) to vote might encourage more people to be informed, but the very fact that we’d have to force them to do something so easy and clearly fundamentally necessary for our democracy doesn’t bode well for that, in my opinion.

          I haven’t fully formed my opinion on the subject, which I admit is complicated. But these are my current thoughts.

  • willwright

    My wife was originally from Peru. Per their law she is still required to vote. She can vote at the local consulate. If she doesn’t vote she has to pay a small fine. In addition you can be called on to work in the polling station, kind of like jury duty here.

  • adelinesdad

    I’m not a true libertarian but probably lean that way enough to think that most of these ideas cede too much power over our lives to the government.

    I can’t think of any mandatory, widespread program primarily intended to make us more patriotic or service-oriented in history. I think it’s fair to say the draft and taxes were instituted out of necessity. If we need mandatory vaccinations, that too may be a matter of necessity. But requiring an action be taken primarily for the purpose of molding the character of people (according to the wisdom of those in power) would an unprecedented move toward social/thought engineering, in my view.

    I agree that as citizens and as human beings we do have certain moral obligations. But for the most part whether those obligations are fulfilled has been a matter of personal choice. If we are failing to fulfill them now, I’m not sure passing a law is either sufficient or right.

    Just my view as of now. I’m open to changing my mind.

  • Rcoutme

    I disagree with the voting suggestion. As one of the TV journalists put it (back in the 1990’s, iirc), “Do you really want someone who is dumb enough to not vote to actually play a part in deciding who leads us?”

    • tidbits

      Stupid people are citizens too. Let us not discriminate based on perceived intellectual capacity, lest we earn the tag of elitist.

      Just sayin’.

      • DdW

        “Stupid people are citizens too.”

        You said in five words what I tried to say in a couple of hundred. Thanks.

        Edit: make that 483 words. 🙂 .

      • adelinesdad

        Agreed, but I think mandatory voting (“we disapprove of your chosen action or inaction with regards to your role as a citizen, and we assume you didn’t make your choice thoughtfully, so in our wisdom we will choose another one for you”) is the more elitist approach.

  • adelinesdad

    Here’s an interesting perspective on mandatory voting: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/03/19/president-obama-endorses-mandatory-voting/

    If you don’t want to read it, he makes several points but the one I’m most interested in is that mandatory voting may make the problem of money in politics worse, not better. Uninformed voters are more likely to form their opinion based on expensive TV ads, making them more important if more uninformed people become voters.

    Also: “One particularly dangerous possibility is that both parties will tend to cater more to the less knowledgeable parts of their respective bases, since those groups would be a higher percentage of the total electorate.”

    (I’m sure some would object to me citing a source that is obviously politically biased, but a reasonable argument stands on its own.)

  • DdW

    I am sure there are some “valid” reasons for calling most of those who don’t vote the “uniformed voters” or even dumb voters and chalk it up to “voter ignorance,” etc., but that type of commentary tends to offend me — and I am sure it offends those who do not vote not because of ignorance, but because of apathy (I guess some would call those voters ignorant), political disillusionment and a host of other reasons.

    The author of the referenced article in AD’s comment, while thrashing the “relatively ignorant voter [who] are more likely to be influenced by simplistic 30 second ads than relatively well-informed ones …” provides some other reasons than “ignorance”:

    – Some people choose not to vote because they find the available
    options so distasteful that they don’t want to be in the position of supporting
    any of them

    – …even intelligent and conscientious people will sometimes find themselves in that [abstaining from voting] position.

    – … many people might prefer not to vote simply because they have
    better uses for their time, including in some cases uses that create more
    benefit for society, as well as themselves.

    Then, the author claims, “Liberal Democratic advocates of compulsory voting are in part motivated by the hope that it will generate increased turnout among young people and racial minorities, thereby securing more electoral victories for their party.” And these hopes are matched by “GOP hopes for higher turnout among working class whites…”

    I guess young people, racial minorities, working class whites, make up the majority of the ignorant, uniformed voters?

    The author concludes:

    The net partisan and ideological effect of mandatory voting is thus difficult to predict, especially once we consider the potential impact of both parties’ adopting new campaign strategies to account for the fact that they will be facing an even more ignorant electorate than at present. One particularly dangerous possibility is that both parties will tend to cater more to the less knowledgeable parts of their respective bases, since those groups would be a higher percentage of the total electorate. If that happens, we could all be net losers from compulsory voting, regardless of whether we currently prefer the Democrats to the Republicans or vice versa.

    Perhaps I am reading it all wrong –have done so before — but what a tragedy that mandatory voting “is likely to make things ‘only’ modestly worse” because “the current electorate already has very low levels of political knowledge…”

    Perhaps we should go the other way: Allow only those with a high IQ, very educated and with a very high level of political knowledge to vote.

    Faced with these two “evils,” (a false choice?) I would go for making voting
    mandatory, even if we take the chance of catching a few “uniformed” voters in
    the dragnet.

    I could be totally misinformed myself on this issue and I ask for your indulgence.

    • adelinesdad

      I also don’t like the condescending tone used to describe those who don’t vote. I happen to be close to someone who rarely votes or engages in political activity, but she does lots of other wonderful things. I could lecturer her about how she is neglecting her duty, but she could just as well lecture me about the many things I could be doing to better society from a non-political perspective also (eta: and probably would make more of a difference than a single vote can. The “my vote doesn’t matter” argument is frustrating to counter because it is pretty much true.). Those of us engaged in politics sometimes delude ourselves into thinking it is the only thing that matters in the long run, but it is not.

      So I would not call them “ignorant” (at least not with the negative connotation associated with that word). But “uninformed” or “politically disengaged” are generally appropriate terms. The question is whether we want to force politically disengaged / uninformed people to vote anyway.

      I think the choice you pose between mandatory, uninformed voting or restricted informed voting is a false one. The solution is to encourage political engagement which then *leads* to more *voluntary* voting. and more informed voting, rather than trying to do it the other way around. That’s harder, yes.

      • DdW

        I think the choice you pose between mandatory, uninformed voting or restricted informed voting is a false one

        Of course it is a false choice (I even said “two “evils” …a false choice?”)

        I agree with you that encouraging political engagement is one way to increase political “knowledge” and encourage voting, but in addition to removing obstacles that make it harder for those who want to vote to do so,e.g. make the right to vote a right and not a “privilege” that politicians can suspend or deny at their whim and according to their biases.

      • Rcoutme

        Yep…encourage but do NOT require. That is my belief.

  • Slamfu

    Compulsory freedom, I love it. I am shocked that people don’t vote more, especially these days when things seem to be so bitterly divided. So many people are either too stupid or apathetic to even care if they are being led over a cliff and I just don’t get it, or how to reach those people. I told everyone that works at my company that they could take off work for voting, and not one of them did. They just don’t care. You’ve got communities like Ferguson MO, ruled by a blatantly racist group of white folks arresting and fining everyone in sight, yet the voters there are like 70% black. WTF? Apparently no one there seems to think voting matters, even while they are being ground under the heel of locally elected officials. And they are far from alone.

    Americans are getting dumber as information becomes more available. I hope we are just going though a phase.

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