At a Cleveland town hall event in mid-March, president Barack Obama mulled the possibility of legally requiring Americans to vote, noting the existence of such laws in other countries like Australia.
"It would be transformative if everybody voted," he said. "That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map of this country."
It's easy to understand Obama's sensitivity on the subject of non-voting. He won re-election in 2012 with a popular vote of just barely one in five Americans — a hair over 50 percent of votes cast by a little more than 40 percent of the population. Not much of a mandate, is it? Nearly six in 10 Americans either chose not to vote or weren't allowed to vote (children, convicted felons in some states, etc.).
Obama's estimate of Americans' intelligence is noteworthy as well. When he says that mandatory voting would "counteract money," what he presumably means is that Democrats would win more elections if they could force people who don't pay attention to the debate — the campaign commercials, campaign brochures and campaign events that money buys — to vote. To re-write the Statue of Liberty's famous line, "give me your ignorant, your uninformed, your apathetic ..." I don't know if he's right about that, but doesn't it seem a bit unflattering to Democrats and to their prospective new constituents?
Mandatory voting sticks in libertarian craws for obvious reasons, one of which Sheldon Richman notes in a March 25 column on the subject: A "right" to vote implies a right to NOT vote. Voting might be a "right," or it might be a "duty," but it can't be both.
Mandatory voting also flies in the face of the alleged basis of American government's legitimacy, per the Declaration of Independence: "Consent of the governed." Compelled voting smacks of "you must consent whether you want to or not." Which, of course, is not really "consent" at all.
Over the last half-century, voting in American elections has become easier and easier. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in registration and voting. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 ("Motor Voter") made registration easy and convenient, available at any government office. Many states have loosened their absentee voting rules and some are moving to "vote by mail" systems eliminating the need to schlep down to a physical polling place and wait in line.
Yet only 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2014 mid-terms.
Maybe the majority of Americans who don't vote are trying to tell Obama and his fellow politicians something. Polling by Rasmussen says that fewer than 20 percent of Americans believe the federal government enjoys that "consent of the governed" I mentioned earlier.
Maybe it's time to proceed to the next step the Declaration mentions and "alter or abolish" the federal government for lack of consent to its existence and actions.
Maybe it's time to do things differently.
Maybe that's what "mandatory voting" advocates are so afraid of.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).