Mandatory Voting? Automatic Registration? How Un-American!

By Mark Green
Published October 19th 2009 in Huffington Post
If you have an election where the winner gets four percent of the eligible electorate, is that a functioning democracy? Having just lost such a runoff contest in New York City,I congratulated the winner for running a skillful campaign according to the rules. But are there better rules?

When there were similarly pathetic turnouts in local school board races 20 years ago, such elections were ridiculed and then abolished. When there are 70-80 percent turnouts in British, French, Swedish and Israeli elections -- or 60 percent in our own 2008 presidential election -- no one questions whether they broadly represent popular will in a functioning democracy. A seven percent turnout, however, risks choosing city-wide officials more in a private selection than a public election.

Instead, let's expand Instant Runoff Voting and automatic registration, and even consider mandatory voting laws:

Instant Runoff Voting. Under IRV, voters rank their choices for an office, 1 or 2 or 3 depending on how many are running. Then after the first and only round of voting, any candidate with a majority of course wins the election, whether primary or general. But if no one has a majority, second and third and choices are automatically allocated until someone gets 50 percent + 1 of all the votes. With the tabulation occurring electronically, a majority winner is guaranteed on election night.

Besides assuring majority rule, IRV saves taxpayers money and cuts the costs of campaigns since there's only one primary and no runoff; reduces negative campaigning because candidates will want to be an acceptable second choice for their opponents' supporters; increases turnout since the electorate needs only to show up to the polls once; avoids winners only working their narrow geographic, racial, religious or organizational niches; and frees people to vote their consciences without the worry of wasting their vote on an admirable though arguable long-shot (a Ralph Nader, a Libertarian) since their ballots will be re-cast for their next choice.

San Francisco has been using IRV since 2004, and recently Aspen, Burlington -- and Australia, Ireland, Great Britain and New Zealand -- have adopted it. It's now been used in 46 American elections in six counties, cities or towns. Analyzing the first IRV election in San Francisco, FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy, concluded (PDF) that "winners received significantly more votes than winners in [past] December runoffs (and especially more than winners in conventional plurality elections), more votes were cast in the decisive election and winners received more votes both in real terms and as a percent of the vote than the old 'delayed' runoff system. And that means more voters had a say in who their supervisor [mayor] is."

Automatic Registration. According to recent U.S. Census data, 30 percent of eligible Americans are not registered vote. So instead of hoping that high school graduates will find their way one by one to Boards of Elections to register as all American jurisdictions do, many countries use their census or tax data bases to create a voter registration list or engage in direct mail or even door-to-door registration drives (Germany, France, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Belgium). According to the Brennan Center for Legal Justice's report, Voter Registration Modernization, "Although the United States does not have a residence registry or a national health care system [yet] that provides a list of all eligible voters, states have a variety of databases that compile information about their citizens - databases maintained by motor vehicle departments, income tax authorities, and social service agencies. Many of these lists already include all the information necessary to determine voter eligibility..." With everyone registered and then encouraged to vote by mailings and public service ads, turnouts increase.

Mandatory Voting. When I used to routinely ask applying law students in interviews what they thought of this idea simply to test their ability to think on their feet, about 98 percent would object to it as coercive, big-brotherish, un-American! "But if we accept the days it takes to sit on juries as a condition of citizenship, why not the few minutes it takes to vote?" Um, oh. Indeed, Australia (since 1924) regards it as much a part of their civic obligation as we in America (for the most part) do paying taxes.

Other countries which require voting includes Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Ecuador and Switzerland. While rules vary, in nearly all there's a penalty of some $15, which citizens can avoid paying by providing a legitimate excuse for not voting (religious objections, travel, illness). And voters can still write-in a name or vote for none-of-the-above.

So why bother? Because such a system could help create a habit to use the franchise rather than just cite it on July 4 ... help assure that elected officials more truly reflect their constituents ... and encourage candidates to concentrate on convincing 50 percent of the total vote, not just pulling out four percent of the eligible electorate. Or as a store window sign down my block once actually put it, "Democracy is like sex -- it works best when you participate."