I recently came across a Democracy Paradox podcast on how to make voting mandatory in the United States. The podcast guest was Miles Rapoport, one of the authors of the book 100% Democracy. The Case for Universal Voting. A transcript of the podcast titled Voting reforms and ideas about voting can be found at democracyparadox.com.
Rapoport made the point that democratic governance should involve every citizen, not just those most motivated to vote. He claimed that the most motivated voters hold the most extreme views, and that recruiting current non-voters would reduce political extremism. His main motive for pushing for mandatory voting seems to be his belief that non-voters are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican; make those people vote, and Democrats will form the government.
The thought that democratic governance should involve every citizen is a noble sentiment, but it is rather unrealistic. I would think that non-voters are too indifferent and disinterested to pay attention to what goes on, hardly a qualification for participating in public affairs. It would actually be more sensible to restrict the voting right to people who can at least demonstrate a basic knowledge and understanding of what constitutes a functioning society.
Obviously citizens have to have a say in public affairs, or we would soon lose our freedom. We have our say by voting, by deciding who will govern us. For this system to work, the voters need to agree on what constitutes a functioning society, what works and what needs fixing. We need to be familiar with the issues that matter, and give some thought to what needs doing. What sense does it make to let people participate in making important decisions if they are clueless and unqualified?
Unfortunately, life has become so complex that it is difficult to be as well enough informed as we should be. We need to know what issues are important and give some thoughts to these matters. On many subjects we need to rely on expert advice, information that may be over many people’s heads. Many voters cannot even tell who can be trusted in an age where fooling and manipulating people is a major industry. More than seventy million Americans voted for Donald Trump again in 2020!
People would likely object to losing the right to vote. Remember though that the voting right is quite different from fundamental “inalienable” rights like the rights to liberty, to due process of law, to freedom of expression et cetera – rights that guarantee our freedoms. The voting right, on the other hand, simply gives us a small say in who will govern us. I don’t mean to belittle this role. It is, in fact, important enough that it should require certain qualifications. Where else in life can you participate in decision-making without some proof of competence?
A system restricting the voting right to qualified citizens shouldn’t be a source of worry. Better informed citizens likely make better decisions at the polls, resulting in more competent and less corrupt governments. Non-voters would benefit just as much in this scenario as those allowed to vote – they live in the same society after all. Better governance should convince them that their loss of the right to vote was actually a gain.
Would the ruling class ever agree to such a reform? Politicians are probably even less inclined than voters to accept this, especially if their main interest is getting reelected and enriching themselves. For them the only thing better than not being answerable to an electorate is to deal with ignorant voters who can be easily manipulated. That suits the billionaire class too. The more pathetic the electorate, the greater the political power of the oligarchs.
I see no viable alternative to representative democracy – citizens electing the people who will govern them. But for the system to work, voters need to give some thought to the issues at stake. This is not an easy task in an age of ever increasing complexity, a cacophony of conflicting claims, and a sea of lies and misinformation. Rather than informing us, this kind of ‘discourse’ is more likely to turn voters off politics.
We need credible independent organizations who can explain the important issues we face, who present the possible solutions and the necessary actions, and who can do this in ways that the average citizen can undertand. Voters need to know what they must focus on, and they need to be able to recognize when they are being conned. Not everyone will listen, and not everyone can be persuaded even by reasonable arguments, but those who are willing to listen will make better choices at the ballot box.
“100% Democracy. The Case for Universal Voting.” E.J. Dionne Jr., Miles Rapoport