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Posted by on Mar 19, 2007 in Politics | 21 comments

The Roots of Reform

Joel Hirschhorn is a passionate and intriguing political writer.

Several months ago, I picked up a copy of his latest book, Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government — a field guide to eight essential reforms for advancing Independent politics.

Mandatory voting is one of those reforms and the subject of Joel’s latest commentary at Op-Ed News. An excerpt …

This is not a crazy, radical idea. Hold your reaction on what probably is a new idea for you. Over 30 countries have compulsory voting. Violating the law usually merits something akin to a parking fine, but it still works. When Australia adopted it in 1924 turnouts increased from under 50 percent to a consistent 90-plus percent. Conversely, when the Netherlands eliminated compulsory voting in 1970 voting turnouts plunged from 90 percent to less than 50 percent. Polls regularly show 70 percent to 80 percent of Australians support mandatory voting. Research found that people living in countries with compulsory voting are roughly twice as likely to believe that their government is responsive to the public’s needs and 2.8 times as likely to vote as compared to citizens in countries without compulsory voting. Is compulsory voting inconsistent with personal freedom? No! We have compulsory education, jury duty, and taxes that are more onerous than voting periodically. And all people have to do is turn out to vote. What they do with their secret ballot is up to them.

I suppose Joel is right in at least one respect. Mandatory voting is probably not “a crazy, radical idea.” But it does strike me as a thoroughly un-American idea.

Sure, I’d like to see more people vote and otherwise get engaged in politics. But I also believe if someone doesn’t want to do those things, no one should make them. What greater freedom is there than the freedom of saying “no”?

Besides, there’s a critical difference between mandatory voting and the other mandatories that Joel lists: education, jury duty, and taxes. If those three facets of our national life are left incomplete, the larger system starts to break down and noticeably so. If there are too few jurists, the courts gum up. Too few taxes and critical government services are left unfunded. Insufficient education leads to an insufficient workforce. But you can’t say the same about voting, at least, not to the same degree. Elections function just as well with 10 thousand voters as they do with 10 million. Candidates still win or lose. Ballot initiatives are still passed or failed. Granted, we may not always like the results, but the system still works; life still goes on.

The same might be said for the other seven reforms that Joel considers (in Delusional Democracy) as foundational to Independent politics — from publicly funded elections to changing how primaries are conducted; from reforming the electoral college to instant runoff voting. Hell, the same might be said for the teeth-gnashing many of us experience over the current duopoly of major political parties. We may not always like our two-party system, but our government still functions, and (heresy alert!) it functions amazingly well, all things considered.

Bottom line: For everyday people — those who are largely focused on taking care of their families, treating others fairly, remaining dutifully employed, and so on — there are things far more important in life than whether or not we have two major parties, whether or not we can make incremental improvements in the functioning of a democracy that, despite its stumbles, still gets the job done, still finds a way to right the ship when it starts to lean too far to the port or starboard.

For those who have followed my writing here and at Central Sanity, the thoughts expressed in this post may very well confuse you. Have I not claimed to be — despite occasional skews to the left or right — ultimately and fiercely non-partisan in my allegiances? Have I not advocated for moderate politics and its close cousin, independent politics? Have I not suggested that reforms like public campaign financing are a good idea? Yes, I have, to all of the above.

Well then, how can I now summarily dismiss reforms that could conceivably benefit independent, non-partisan interests?

Simple: Hirschhorn and his ilk are focused on procedural reforms, whereas I increasingly believe the answer to our myriad dilemmas lies not in protocol, but in people — in real politicians who are aligned with the real concerns of real voters. And we can today, in the current system with no changes whatsoever, get those politicians elected. And we can do that the old fashioned way: By sharing our opinions openly with friends and family and neighbors. By volunteering to work on an election or re-election campaign. And so on.

In other words: Reform starts in the dirt, not in the clouds.

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