Voter apathy concept
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“Why do bad things happen to good people?” is a question often asked in philosophical and religious circles. But in the political realm where I spend too many of my waking hours, I hear a variation of that same question: “Why do smart people come up with bad ideas?” I don’t have an answer to either query, but when the latter rears its ugly head, I feel compelled to register my disapproval. 

To wit, a proposal is currently being floated by half a dozen lawmakers at the Capitol to make voting in elections mandatory. For their contribution to this blight upon the land, the unwilling, the reluctant, or the forgetful will be fined an unspecified amount for their lack of participation in a democratic ritual.

Let us acknowledge upfront that this bill is unlikely to be passed — hopefully not in my lifetime — but the fact that it’s even being pondered offers a window into the thinking of the six legislators, all Democrats, who proposed it. And it’s not the first time it has happened.

A previous bill proposed by former Sen. Will Haskell died in committee two years ago. That gem would have imposed a fine of $20 or two hours of mandatory community service if nonvoters could not provide a valid excuse for exercising their right to not vote. The latest bill does not specify what a valid excuse might be, but its stated purpose is to “incentivize civic engagement.”

“What would be deemed a valid reason?” fumed Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie. “There were only idiots running and I refused to encourage them?” Rennie, evidently, was channeling humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who famously counseled strategic abstention: “Don’t vote. It just encourages the bastards.

A similar effort is afoot in the state of Washington, where a legislator in Olympia said he was inspired to push for “universal civic-duty voting” (his words, not mine) by a recently published book entitled “100% Democracy” by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and former Connecticut Secretary of the State Miles S. Rapoport. The Washington bill also includes mandatory registration — a concept on which the latest Connecticut proposal is silent.

About two dozen foreign countries require their citizens to vote, according to Oregon Public Radio, which researched the subject last month. Enforcement among these nations varies widely. Abstaining in North Korea could prompt harsh reprisals (dictators like high approval ratings), whereas nations such as Greece and Honduras take virtually no action against offenders.

“Where there is enforcement, voter turnout is markedly better than in the U.S.,” the report says. Well, duh. Unless the forbidden fruit effect prevails, banning something and punishing the culprits generally results in less of it. The more important question lies in measuring the value of a coerced vote.

What is the typical profile of the habitual nonvoter? Off the top of my head, I doubt they are uniformly ideological. I’d say they are either too busy to worry about public policy, too alienated from the system to see any point in voting, or too jaded to believe there is any substantive difference between the candidates.

According to a recent landmark study by the Knight Foundation, “The 100 Million Project,” I’m partly right. Nonvoters appear to be evenly split between those who lean Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated. 

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Non-voters say they don’t vote for a variety of reasons, “including not liking the candidates and feeling their vote doesn’t matter,” according to the study. They have less faith in the electoral system than voters, are less informed, and most don’t even think increased participation in elections is good for the country. Even worse, they are more likely to think “the system is rigged.” A Pew study from 2012 showed much the same thing.

Leaving aside for the moment the policy implications of mandatory voting proposals themselves, what would be the value in the votes of people who are not inclined to pay attention to the issues or who think there is little difference between the parties or who think the system is “rigged?” On what set of facts would they be casting their ballots? No, the real problem is lack of civic engagement and no amount of nagging and cajoling is going to change that.

“If you want to be living in a democracy and you want democracy to work, then you vote,” state Sen. Josh Elliot, lead sponsor of the bill, told Hearst’s Dan Haar. So, if you don’t care about any of those things, then you shouldn’t vote? Senator, you can’t force people to care about things that don’t matter to them.

I realize the idea is to improve Connecticut’s voter participation rates, which of late have been especially poor in the state’s largest cities. Others are convinced that forced voting will serve as pushback against voter suppression. Call me a voice in the wilderness, but I’m not one of those observers who thinks increasing voter participation is, by its very definition, a welcome step. 

It seems that all too often, arguments over increasing voter participation fall along party lines: While few of them will admit it, Democrats think the masses of the unregistered and unmotivated, if prodded to register and vote, would naturally gravitate toward the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Republicans tend to agree, which is precisely why they are often skeptical of such efforts.

And what sort of mandate do compulsory-voting advocates think they have? A report by the Brookings Institution and Harvard Kennedy School found only 26% of Americans favored the idea. Besides, there is no shortage of sharp legal minds who are convinced that mandatory voting is unconstitutional.

To wit, two legal scholars penned a 2016 article in the Yale Law Review asserting the obvious: voting is an exercise of free speech. And freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak. Others have noted that in 1964, Americans ratified the 24th Amendment, which prohibits imposing a poll tax on voters. Yet mandatory voting would essentially be a reverse poll tax on those who abstain.

Finally, as a political matter, this is poison for Democrats who want to improve their standing among working class voters, many of whom already think the party is comprised of “elites” who look down on them and don’t live in the real world. It should come as no surprise that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, who taught constitutional law and famously asserted in 2008 that working class people in small towns often “cling to guns or religion,” was also an advocate for mandatory voting.

Now a group of Democrats in the General Assembly want to force some of those same people to vote against their wishes and take money out of their wallets if they refuse to do so. Warning: Republicans are already eating this up.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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