Driving to work the other day, I heard a report on NPR about the ongoing debate on statewide gun control laws. Toward the end of the piece, it was reported that in Colorado there is a push for a statewide ballot initiative on whether or not to keep the state’s recently introduced gun control measures in place. It seems those in support of loosening the restrictions are rallying around a familiar call to arms here in America: “Let the People decide!”
Therefore, if Colorado were to abide by Australia’s laws, all of its citizens would be required to at least show up to the polls on election day and the outcome might actually represent the opinion of the people – not just the side most able to rally its own troops.
The very thought of compulsory voting ruffled my American feathers when I learned about it. Our democracy tends to boil itself down to the idea that one has the freedom to choose and one of those choices is the right to forgo choosing.
Despite being one of those films watched too many times by soul searching teens – the movie equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye – Dead Poets Society demonstrates this point quite well in one particular scene. In an attempt to encourage his students to cherish their individuality, Robin Williams instructs each boy to take a stroll around a courtyard at his own pace. One student, Charlie Dalton, simply leans against the wall and, when asked why, explains that he is exercising the right not to walk. Williams smiles and thanks him for illustrating the lesson so well.
That is America. If I don’t want to, you can’t make me.
This was one of the first arguments against Obamacare. Forcing Americans to pay for healthcare flew in the face of their right to choose not to cover themselves. The Supreme Court eventually ruling that this aspect of the healthcare law was more of a tax, something which the government is within its right to force upon citizens, did away with this argument. Nevertheless, the negative sentiments still remain. Americans, as well as many Westerners, do not like being told they must do something.
Yet there are certain things we do force on our citizenry. As mentioned above, paying taxes is compulsory. Perhaps more interesting is the Selective Service – the requirement that all men aged 18 to 25 (except those already on active duty, continually confined to a hospital or some other facility, and seasonal agricultural workers) register to be conscripted into the military should the government choose to institute a draft. Despite legal challenges that claim it goes against the first and thirteenth amendments, the law has survived. In addition, we have jury duty and require most children to attend school until a certain age. In these cases, you have no right to choose otherwise. Should you do so, you’ll be punished under the law.
It seems that, in some cases, Americans are actually comfortable allowing the government to force certain things onto the general population.
So, why not when it comes to voting?
Under the Australian law, you just have to show up; there is no requirement that you actually fill out your ballot. You can simply fold up a blank piece of paper and turn it in if you wish (and more than a few people claim to do exactly that). Could that work in America? Maintaining privacy by not peeking over citizens’ shoulders to ensure that they’re actually ticking the boxes would be important. Rather, the requirement would be to cast a ballot in some way.
It’s important to note that, between early voting and absentee voting Americans do have some flexibility when it comes to being able to cast their vote at their convenience. That isn’t to say that it’s easy to find the time. People still have work and family commitments to keep. Therefore, if we were to make voting mandatory, we would also need to be sure that they have several ways and opportunities to do so. In addition, a proper appeals process, as there is in the Australian system, would need to be in place should one fail to vote.
The real question, however, is would it matter. Even if required to cast their opinion down on paper, would Americans take the time and energy to be informed about issues and vote in a constructive manner? A few academics have weighed in and argue that unfortunately compulsory voting does little to spark the interest of the uninformed.
My hope is that it would at least lead to some of the fence sitters weighing. Looking back at Colorado’s gun control debate, a few more voters weighing in might at least help the state better gauge the public’s stance on the issue. Perhaps, it would give us a better picture of what we as a nation are actually striving for instead of continually finding ourselves beholden to the loudest, most extreme voices. It could force politicians to speak to everyone, not just wealthy donors. It could bring some rational thought back into politics.
Perhaps it wouldn’t work. Perhaps it really would only lead to a lot of wasted time and energy as more uninterested voters turn in spoiled ballots. Maybe it never happens here. Or, maybe just a conversation about it will make more people feel compelled to vote. And I think we can all agree that what we need now is a more engaged public; one that by having its say, is willing to accept some responsibility for the direction of the country.
Looking back to the scene in Dead Poets Society, we can certainly choose not to walk. But, in the end, it gets us nowhere.